For those who have never heard of these guys, a quick introduction may be necessary. Dirty Three hail from Melbourne, Australia. They have been around for over a decade, plying their trademark violin-lead instrumental music across the globe. As well as leading the band, classically trained violinist Warren Ellis has also been court-appointed fiddler to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds since the mid-nineties; so chances are you already own some of his work.
Okay, let’s not beat around the bush – instrumental violin music? What the hell? Yes, I know this may be a hard nut to swallow for most self-respecting indie kids, but this is not that Nigel Kennedy or Vanessa Mae toss your mum likes to listen to. Accompanied by Mick Turner on drums and Jim White on guitar, Warren Ellis is your fiddling ferryman on a journey across the river Styx, guiding you down into the darkness at the core of the human soul. He encompasses themes of corruption, greed, narcissism, loneliness, despair and loss - all without saying a word. Imagine Tom Waits somehow expressed without his voice and you’re halfway there.
|"Slow, brooding compositions build into grand, sweeping epics and then segue into frenzies of frantic noise and destruction. "|
Tonight at Liverpool's Carling Academy, the Dirty Three play an intimate gig to about a hundred hardcore fans. Warren Ellis takes to the stage sporting a beard that wouldn’t look out of place alongside Captain Pugwash – he drolly announces to the audience that the facial furniture is the result of a mid-life crisis. “It was a difficult choice between the beard or crack abuse – I decided to go with the one that would annoy the wife more”. Mick and Jim seem eager to get the night off the ground and soon we are delving deep into the melodious depths of the grubby troika’s latest album, Cinders.
Ellis plays with his back to the crowd and dances in spasms like the original mad fiddler. He wouldn’t seem out of place thrashing about with his violin on a desolate hillside, silhouetted by the moon in a grim eastern-European fairy tale. Absolutely engrossed in his music, he seems oblivious to the outside world. Slow, brooding compositions build into grand, sweeping epics and then segue into frenzies of frantic noise and destruction. On occasion Ellis turns to the crowd and we see the intensity and emotion etched into the lines of his face as he slams his foot to the floor like some latter-day Rumplestiltskin, while his arms dart back and forth as though trying to saw his violin in half with the bow.
The music is fluid, not set in stone – there is no set-list, only a rough plan of where to go next. Following the rambling whims of the jazz manifesto, each piece seems at first disparate and chaotic, but listen deeper and you can hear forms and melodies taking shape. The lack of lyrics (Ellis sees them as a distraction from the music) ensure that the songs take on a different meaning and resonance with each member of the audience – all depending on your individual point of view. Looking around, it’s easy to see how Dirty Three are affecting the crowd on different levels – eyes closed, lost in the music, dancing, swaying, smiling, laughing, crying – Dirty Three obviously reaches the parts other bands cannot reach.
Of course, all this could all get painfully pretentious in the wrong hands. It’s lucky then that far from being some aloof wunderkind, Warren Ellis is a typically down-to-earth Aussie bloke and is happy to chew the fat and crack a few jokes with the audience between songs. But when he raises that violin, you know that it’s time to settle down, he’s about to teach you a thing or two about the power of music. Whatever your standpoint, it is difficult not to be moved, not to feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck as Ellis, Mick and Jim strip music down to its raw essence.
When it’s all over, the general consensus is that we have witnessed something rather incredible tonight. This was not your typical gig that’s easy to throw into a box marked ‘alternative’. It was not an evening of rock, jazz or classical music – it was a evening of something that simply defies definition. It was an evening of Dirty Three.