At the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Warren Ellis wonders why barriers separate the crowd from the band. Possibly to protect us from Dirty Three? Ellis promises a heckler to “do my first crowd surf and rip your throat out.” But, terrifying and absurd though that sounds, it’s the force of their music that leaves their audience resistless to the overwhelming.
The gig begins in stand-up mode. Ellis gives pop culture the full Hieronymus Bosch, piling the bodies of sinners up against the sky, railing against the internet, Starbucks and Chris Martin (“Once you’ve seen Coldplay perform 'Fight for Your Right to Party', you know the Devil walks amongst us.”). Behind him, Jim White and Mick Turner wait impassively for their cue. Taken together, these three musicians look like killers, and only White looks like he’d regret it.
The band play in wholly individual styles. Ellis has thrown off his jacket to reveal a shirt you wouldn’t know where to buy even if you wanted to. He struts like a lupine child, pleased with the arc of his spit; he frees himself with a loop machine to become his own Bez. Turner, the guitarist, is stony and waiting. White is surely as good as John Coltrane’s drummer, Elvin Jones (and who says that lightly?). He certainly plays with the same furiously regular rainfall, though gently, watching his sticks as though they belong to something else.
These contrasts are thrilling. Ellis’ violin is everywhere, everything, sheets of white suddenly restrained by the precision of keen-bowed loss, never sadder than in the song 'Sometimes I Forget You've Gone'. Turner, meanwhile, plays in deliberate lags, unadorned notes flurrying over black water without once asking for our sympathy. He lurks only slightly further on stage than the soundman, who gets his own curtain call for the achievement of keeping these musicians sown, welded, together.
That’s not to say the Dirty Three’s songs aren’t crafted: they build to grinding, pastoral crescendos, each more improbably intense than the last. Some cut out. Some fade in shadows, punctuated with Ellis’ unamplified screams. He’s melodramatic, ridiculous, hopping around on his left foot as his right conducts mid-air, and the crowd are with him every weird hip-twist of the way.
By the time Ellis has sweated sufficiently to reveal from under his mane a crucifix earring, Dirty Three begin 'Everything's Fucked'. This song (their misguided attempt to write a hit single, apparently) typifies the strange, funny, tremendous sadness of their music. Ellis’ playing reaches points of extraordinary delicacy; you can hear every one of his bow’s regrets. It’s perhaps no surprise that something so violently moving never registered in the charts.
Despite the look of them, and despite all the sudden collapsing of their music, the Dirty Three know exactly what they’re doing. Their eyes are always meeting. Really, the only danger is that they might be too good.
Words by Freddy Syborn
Photos by Richard Gray