The Dirty Three – 10.15.05

the Metro – Chicago

I wandered uptown to the Metro well after the time that the doors should have been open. There I was greeted with a line of people that wandered down the block and around the corner; it was an odd mix of youngish hipsters and a fair number of people in settling softly into their thirties. I was surprised with the volume of people present, and I realized then that I didn’t really have a grasp of The Dirty Three’s fan base. I quickly scrambled upstairs and nestled into a comfortable spot against the railing of the balcony, which is the best spot at the Metro to get a full view of everything.

Freakwater took the stage late, doling out their dreamy kind of alt-country, (which is actually close enough to the real thing that you could safely throw out the “alt” prefix.) Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin sing in lovely close harmonies backed by a pedal steel guitar, bassist, and drummer. Bassist Dave Gay made the band complete just with his outfit: black shirt with white fringe, black cowboy boots and perpetually lit cigarette. The crowd remained still and attentive during each song but responded enthusiastically at the end. A small number of couples even took the opportunity to slow dance to the appropriately cozy music. Dirty Three’s Mick Turner came out and contributed to a few songs, one of which had a stunning e-bow and pedal steel solo that probably won over a few people who were still on the fence about the country music genre. The kind of music that Freakwater makes is simplistic yet enjoyable. If you’re even remotely familiar with anything Nashville, you can hear the chord changes coming, but it’s still satisfying.

I rested between sets with my back to the balcony, chatting with friends. From behind me, I suddenly heard a squalling mess of guitar noise. Turning around, I saw the source: a lanky guy with scraggly brown hair and beard who looked like David Della Rocco (remember the guy in Boondock Saints who accidentally kills his girlfriend’s cat?) He was wailing away on an overdriven mandolin to the cheering of the audience. I assumed he was a roadie sucking up a few seconds of spotlight… I wouldn’t have guessed him as the leader of the band. From my evenings spent relaxing to Ocean Songs or other Dirty Three albums, I never would have pictured what I saw as Warren Ellis finished the sound check.

Whether you could qualify them as some form of Australian Jazz or twisted folk-punk, no single description does Dirty Three a true justice, as they draw from so many varied influences. Though their music is an amorphous, instrumental blob of mood and beauty, it’s definitely rooted in the tonal wanderings of post-rock. The jazz-influenced drumming of Jim White helps the band break away, injecting a trembling shot of energy into the mix. The Dirty Three utilize the same kind of swell and drama that GSYBE! entangle, but there’s a level of humanity that goes beyond their post-rock peers. Between songs, Ellis gladly engaged the audience, sounding half drunk as he doled out the back story to many of the songs. As comical as it was, having a bit of story lends a deeper dynamic and emotion to the music they play. You can connect the aching in the music to a human event (even if it is a repeated warning not to inject acid.) When Ellis expounds about how a song is rooted in a midlife crisis-inspired 10-year drug binge, you can believe it with each distorted push of the bow.

Live, the Dirty Three blow the dust from the corners of their music just as Mogwai layer distortion on the quietest of their songs. Ellis would shoot across the stage, doing a one legged blues-hop, then give a drunken karate kick to the crash symbol as he ravaged his violin. He writhed around the stage like Yasha Heifetz with the balls of Angus Young, playing with such ferocity that halfway through the set his bow started to shred. Casually, while rambling between songs, he would casually tear the loose pieces of his bow off and launch into the next number. You can imagine Ellis as a child, starry-eyed with the sexualized rock of the 60’s and 70’s, crying as his mother dragged him off screaming to yet another violin lesson. Ellis’s revenge becomes our entertainment, as he plays the violin with all the verve of Hendrix after ignoring the warnings about using a syringe to consume your LSD.

Before I knew it, 2 am was drawing closer, and the last thing I wanted was for the show to end. The band was at a point where the peak of the show wasn’t even near yet. Thanks to a good judgment call by the Metro’s management, Dirty Three were allowed to play past the curfew, dragging their set to nearly 3 am. The final song of the evening, a winding, gorgeous version of “Indian Love Song”, was the pinnacle of the set. They built the song up to be painfully and gorgeously loud, pushing the range of their instruments beyond what was expected. They played to a frenzy and then gradually quieted down, each performer kneeling down to the stage and turning toward drummer Jim White. He took a short, skittering drum solo that showed off his unique and dynamic style. Like a slow inhale, they then began to build the music back toward a final peak. Ellis laid flat on his back, playing his violin like a man suffering through a seizure. Again the noise rose to a near punishing volume as the Dirty Three ended their set. As the ringing in my ears slowly faded and I wandered contented out into the cold, I knew I had witnessed something undeniably unique.

Previously published at Loose Record

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