The Dirty Three manage to create a distinctly Australian musical narrative, all without so much as a word being sung.
Even if you’ve never heard of the Dirty Three, chances are that you’ve unwittingly come across one or more of them in your travels: those hidden tracks on the first X-Files album; the violin on Cat Power’s “Good Woman” which came courtesy of Warren Ellis, nominal head of the Three; their collective curation of one weekend of the 2007 UK All Tomorrow’s Parties festival; Mick Turner and Jim White (guitar and drums respectively) having appeared as backing musicians for the likes of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and PJ Harvey, and Ellis being a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In short, they’re a band that gets around.
With this being Australia Day (basically like the fourth of July, but with even more barbecued meat and beer) we managed to miss openers Laughing Clowns run through their History of Rock ‘n’ Roll Volume 1 album, which I am still kicking myself for. At the time, we stumbled into an incredibly packed Enmore Theatre without a second thought for what we’d missed. There were more people jammed in tonight than I had ever seen before, even for big international acts, which give some indication as to the esteem in which this band are held by their rabidly devoted fans.
The crowd response when the Three finally took the stage was rapturous. Ellis looked like a rock’n’roll Rasputin, his giant unkempt beard dominating his face, and he came on with a charm offensive worthy of the mad monk himself. Throughout the night Ellis’ stage banter would liven up the proceedings considerably, providing context and humor to the exclusively instrumental songs. Judging by Ellis’ own explanations of the songs, it seems that most of them are somehow related to rampant substance abuse, or were otherwise opining the fact that his substance abuse wasn’t rampant enough.
Tonight the band performed their classic Ocean Songs album in its entirety as part of the Don’t Look Back series of concerts, an event that had been eagerly anticipated, at least judging from the atmosphere amongst the crowd. As an album, Ocean Songs sounds, well, oceanic. To borrow from David Fricke’s review of the album for Rolling Stone, the band plays with “Such taut Adagio sensuality…that at times the music seems to freeze in mid-rapture”.
In the flesh the band brought a stormy temperament to the previously placid songs, re-capturing some of the fiery playing that made their earlier albums such raucous treasures, and Ellis himself was thrashing about like a tempest. He would frequently high-kick the air, and I’m talking some seriously balletic shit here, which is rumored to be some kind of signal to his band mates. The band was lit heavily from behind, casting eerie, demonic shadows on the high walls of the theatre. There could hardly have been a simpler or more fitting dramatic effect for a band that seems to be calling something shapeless and nameless into being as they play.
It is no mean feat to keep someone with as short an attention span as me interested for any great period of time without the benefit of lyrical stimulation, but the Dirty Three have a hypnotic, engrossing way about them that draws you into the fabric of the music. At no point did I find myself clock-watching or wishing the night away, as I did recently with a currently critically acclaimed group who shall remain nameless. OK it was Grizzly Bear, and while many people can’t speak highly enough of them, some whose opinion I quite respect, I do not apologise for the fact that I just don’t see it. Seriously, not even “Knife” does it for me.
As the night drew to a close I found myself with an unusual feeling stirring within. I am not usually the type for anything more than a casual sense of national pride, but tonight I was definitely proud that a group of musicians the caliber of these guys were from the same patch of earth as myself. They manage to create a distinctly Australian musical narrative, and all without so much as a word being sung.