The Dirty Three

[23 April 2003]

By Thomas Bartlett

The Bowery Ballroom was packed to bursting point last Friday at 11 when Warren Ellis walked on stage, a violin case in one hand, a banana in the other. Both the crowd and the banana seemed fitting, for it is, after all, an event when the Dirty Three come to town. They tour the States every three years or so, and for a band of their stature and wide-ranging influence that is not enough. The first thing that the expectant audience noticed was that there were not three, but four men walking onstage. The crowd clearly contained at least a few professional comics, or otherwise humor-gifted individuals, because there was soon a veritable chorus of chumps yelling “Dirty Four!” The fourth man, as Ellis informed us, was Zak Sally, bassist for the splendidly morose band Low. Having disposed of Sally and his bass, the hecklers turned their attention to Ellis and his banana, “Stop eating and play!” being the most representative remark. “Give me a break! This isn’t a fucking Ramones concert,” replied Ellis. “When the banana’s finished, the show’s over. I just ate the second song.”

Having left the banana on top of his amp, Ellis, with great fanfare and drama, began “Alice Wading”, which is also the first track on the band’s new album, She Has No Strings Apollo. He started alone, with a simple melodic line, but the sound was almost overpowering on its own. Ellis’s frame of reference is not the violin, but the symphony orchestra. His violin is so heavily amplified that it’s constantly edging towards distortion, and he gets a huge, overtone-filled sound out of his instrument, the Mack truck of violins. It’s completely over-the-top, super-saturated with melodrama, not unlike Ellis himself, who is a jubilantly flamboyant performer. He is skinny, with long, unkempt hair and glasses, and I’m sure that he’s spent a lot of time in front of a mirror, learning to look like a parody of a virtuoso violinist while he plays, an out-of-control Paganini. Ellis also loves to dance while he plays, his movement partly borrowed from flamenco, partly from the similarly lanky Nick Cave, with whom he plays. Yes, Ellis is one of those over-the-top personalities who litter the music world, famed for zany behavior and for “playing the shit” out of their instruments. As a general rule, I find that anyone who is consistently described as “playing the shit” out of their instrument, or “going wild,” is a talentless git. Ellis is an exception.

Soon, Ellis abandoned the deep, rich melody for a repetitive pizzicato line, the emphasis shifting to the drum and guitar textures around him. As the volume grew, Zak Sally huddled close to his amp, producing waves of thick feedback. The band eventually settled into a one-note groove, building and building into an overpowering wall of sound, with no harmonic or rhythmic content whatsoever. This is one of the Dirty Three’s two basic modes, the other being lyrical, melodramatic melodies, although the two often intertwine or collide. As the band came crashing to a halt, it was hard not to feel a little bit exhausted. But anyone who had seen them before knew that this was just the first of many peaks, an early, not particularly challenging mountain stage in the Tour de France that is a Dirty Three show.

Then, in a time-honored ritual, Ellis came to the microphone, snapping off broken bow hairs, to introduce the next song. The formula is very simple: he says “this next song is about . . .” and then he makes something up. It’s always long, convoluted, delivered, with many pauses for thought, in a thick Australian accent, and very funny. An example: “This song is about . . . the Dirty Three, walking in an airport, and somebody saying . . . ‘look, there’s James Brown’ . . . and you look . . . and there’s James Brown . . . and that’s when you realize that . . . you . . . just . . . ar . . . not . . . funky . . . that you’re just some flaky little punk, and that James Brown is up there with the Greek Gods . . . like Zeus . . . fuck it, Roman Gods . . .” The story then turned to AC/DC guitarist Malcolm Young, also apparently up with the Roman Gods, and how he and James like to talk about how great they are, and about how the Dirty Three just aren’t all that hot. Another started “This song is about . . . who gets to take the cat when it’s all over . . .” and then developed into a lengthy, rambling narrative involving walking through the wilderness and eating sandwiches. Needless to say, the descriptions never bear any discernible relation to the songs that they are ostensibly describing, but that never seems to bother anyone very much.

The next piece was “1,000 Miles”, one of three they played from 1996’s Horse Stories, their most popular album. This is a simple two-chord tune that Ellis embellished only minimally. “Some Summers They Drop Like Flies” started as an elegant waltz, almost Russian in flavor, before building to an overwhelming mass of sound. “The Last Night”, from their debut album, had a punk energy to it, and featured Ellis screaming into his violin pickup. When Ellis’ on-stage antics get tiresome, it’s easy to become mesmerized by the extraordinary drummer, Jim White. Within the world of indie rock, Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley is his only peer. He is the Drunken Master of the drums, the antithesis of a drum machine. He presides over his hectic drum kit with absolute calm, tossing tambourines on and off of his cymbals, his arms swinging high above his head, in comically floppy motion. It’s no surprise that he has in the past been drafted to play for Nick Cave, Cat Power, Smog, and Will Oldham, among many others. Given the flamboyance of Ellis and White, guitarist Mick Turner’s demeanor, positively Scandinavian in its absence of expression, comes as something of a surprise. His playing, though, is extraordinarily fluid, as he makes an ambient bed of noise beneath Ellis and White, the base on which the band’s sound is built. I realize that this review has focused on Warren Ellis, much to the detriment of Jim White and Mick Turner. This is understandable, as he is such an entertaining figure, but it is not fair. The only other band I can think of that depends so evenly on the contributions of three separate musicians is Keith Jarrett’s trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette.

The band returned to Horse Stories with “Hope”, one of their most beautiful compositions. Here, Ellis’ let’s-pull-some-heart-strings lyrical playing was front and center, as he took a melody that could be cloying if played cleanly, and roughed it up by repeating each note jerkily, playing it over and over as if trying to get it just right, but not caring about the false starts. The effect is like a van Gogh painting, layer upon layer, as if by applying enough paint, or enough sound, everything will eventually become clear. They continued with “Sister Let Them Try and Follow”, “No Stranger Than That”, and “She Has No Strings”, all from She Has No Strings Apollo, before finally arriving at “Sue’s Last Ride”, which is typically the last piece in a Dirty Three concert. The Dirty Three, with their soaring melodies and throbbing climaxes, are constantly in search of a transcendent beauty born out of chaos and distorted noise. In an evening full of climaxes and cathartic moments, “Sue’s Last Ride” is the final and most intense catharsis, the Dirty Three’s shoot-the-moon attempt at nirvana. It starts with a simple, beautiful melody, it begins a seemingly endless build, and just when it seems like it can grow no further, that same little simple melody comes back, screaming over the top of the mayhem. The only comparable musical moment that I can think of is the return of the Liebestod melody at the end of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Needless to say, no encore was necessary. The Dirty Three left their audience exhilarated, exhausted, and wondering what had happened to that banana.

Published at: