Dirty Three’s songs contain no words, but Warren Ellis’ off-mic, anguished howl says more than lyrics ever could. During whatever saddened bowing Ellis is conjuring up, he cries to the ceiling intermittently. Sometimes he resembles a lone wolf, at others a banshee. Last night, the scream bellowed through the domed Sixth & I synagogue, inviting similar cathartic yelping from the rapt crowd. Ellis’ wail felt like a pure emotional release, expelling any complex feelings out into the world, instead of letting them sit around and argue inside. Dirty Three’s music works similarly. The fervor and tact with which this trio operates creates a sound as epically liberating as screaming at the top of your lungs until there’s nothing left inside.
But Dirty Three is more than pure physicality. The band’s music is also genuinely beautiful, each song sombering forward with an introspective hesitance. It rolls and waves ahead until it meets its climactic finish–a sea-borne vessel crashing into the shore. Moreover, watching these three players conjure up this sort of melancholic ecstasy whilst seated in synagogue pews felt appropriately spiritual. With its uproarious highs and deeply saddening lows, this is music that moves and inspires. These songs are a wordless portrait of the world and its intricacies.
Ellis made sure to explain those intricacies to the best of his abilities, summarizing each and every song, with his eccentric, comprehensive, stream-of-conscious descriptors. This frail, hirsute figure was unequivocally amusing in his banter, venturing into uncharted waters as any comedian would. Topics addressed included Coldplay’s overbearing love (“I’ve received too much love tonight. There can be too much love! Coldplay: that’s too much love.”), the tooth fairy, Mark Zuckerberg’s messianic societal role, throwing the world into cheese-filled pajama bottoms and pulling the drawstring tight, being a hemorrhage, Santa Claus, and Chris Martin’s “putrid” cover of The Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right”. No subject was overlooked. It was a comedy show when it wasn’t a collective emotional catharsis. Every sensation was regarded.
With Ellis doing all of the talking and feeling, Jim White and Mick Turner kept comically calm and quiet. But musically, each player bore his own distinctive gifts.
Jim White–one of the most fluid, idiosyncratic drummers currently performing–makes being one of the best look mind-numbingly easy. His facial stoicism is particularly jarring when set against his broad strokes and rich, evocative precision. Elegant hands and arms flow about “Jimmy’s” body, switching out mallets for brushes for sticks just as a magician would orchestrate a slight-of-hand disappearing act. He paints his drumset with impressionistic brushwork, then pounds at his toms with immensity. He likes to carve out a rhythm, distance himself from it, then hammer it down like you would a nail you’re trying to bend and warp before driving it into the wall. Machine-gun fast, patience-testingly slow, or all speeds at once, White’s playing is a luxury to behold.
Ellis hops around, slams his boots to the ground, and falls to his knees as if it’s part of the song. His emphatic fiddle playing bleeds onto the stage, bowing his violin till the horse-hairs tear away. Last night, Ellis looked at home in front of Sixth & I’s gargantuan menorahs and stars of David. His fiddle playing took on a Klezmer association, his facial hair a Rabbinical one.
Guitarist Mick Turner has the regrettable task of fitting in between these two mongrels. His guitar work looks emphatic and heavy, but comes trickling out of the sound system more than it spills. It has a muted, almost unintentional sound to it, as if trying to keep quiet but incapable of doing so. At times it grows to a distorted hum, at others it whispers and trips over Ellis and White. He flicks his fingers against the strings, then rips at them in forceful upstrokes.
Last night, all came together for a sound as apocalyptic as it was hopeful, as gorgeous as it was heartbreaking, as inspiring as it was defeating. It said it all, without saying a single word. By the set’s end, every audience member gave a standing ovation. Ellis threw his celebratory arm in the air like Johnny Cash famously giving the finger, gleeful and receptive to the audience’s passionate graciousness. It was a beautiful evening, filled with all of the pure, unadulterated emotions we seek from the songs we enjoy. Thank you Dirty Three, for reminding us this sort of experience still exists.
(What I have in my notes as the) Setlist:
“I Was a Teenage Hemorrhage”
All My Friends are Gone
The Pier or goodbye world my love
Some summers they drop like flies
The last horse
“God’s biggest joke is Coldplay”
The Zither Player
“You are never alone with Dirty Three”
Possibly Sue’s Last Ride