Dirty Three

Double Door, March 22

By Monica Kendrick

There’s something about the very sight of a member of the violin family that makes a lot of people assume they’re in for something fundamentally different from rock ‘n’ roll. Perhaps it’s a middle-class association of the fluttering bow with the fear of coughing loudly; perhaps Warren Ellis should have listed his instrument in the Dirty Three’s liner notes as a “fiddle” rather than a “violin.” Perhaps then the band’s booking agent wouldn’t have gone with the cabaret motif that led to the senseless waste of prime Double Door real estate–a precious commodity at the best of times–on extra chairs and tables. This setup, admittedly, was due in part to coheadliner Low. From the agent’s Web site: “We here at the Billions Corporation have noticed how Low shows seem more appropriate in seated venues where the audience can be relaxed and comfortable and therefore more inclined to enjoy the band’s performance in quieter surroundings. We thought the same might be true of the Dirty Three.”

The first part is undeniably true. In fact, for Low’s overweeningly delicate performance–which made Big Star’s Sister Lovers sound like the Stooges’ Fun House–the management would have done better to provide hot chocolate and warm beds. The second part is an amazing leap of logic. The Dirty Three, an instrumental trio from Melbourne, Australia, are nothing if not a shit-kicking rock ‘n’ roll band, with the hard-living looks and reflexive twitches of compulsive musicians–drummer Jim White probably struck as many beats while warming up as Low’s Mimi Parker did during an entire set. Ellis is downright hyperactive, leaping on and off amplifiers, playing half a song on his knees and the rest on his back, and striking poses that would be gag-inducing if he were a guitarist and yet aren’t because he isn’t. He has an occasional gig as a sideman for Nick Cave, and it isn’t hard to imagine him stealing the spotlight.

So whence comes this weird assumption that the Dirty Three are best appreciated while sitting down? Granted, their records are dark, moody affairs with a lonely late-night feel, but they sound great cranked up really loud: their quiet moaning lurches into riotous distortion and noisy rave-ups fairly reliably, and they’re well-spiced with drunken waltzes and Bad Seeds-like gothic country death rock. The Dirty Three don’t sing, but neither do Man or Astroman? and no one sits down for them. No, it must be that celestial baggage that the violin and its siblings just can’t shake, no matter what is done with them–and quite a bit already has been done in the pop realm. Rasputina plays this mystique to the hilt with its layered cellos and fantasy fin de siecle costumes. Kansas used the violin to push its lowbrow ideas of high art into a nightmarish contemporary-Christian realm that had Bach doing the twist in his grave.

But that kind of pseudoclassical frippery doesn’t acknowledge another equally venerable tradition: the string family has been an eloquent vehicle for rowdy folk angst and joy all across Europe and America for hundreds of years. In Calvinist Appalachia it’s been called “the devil’s box” and burned at least as often as the guitar. There is a Scandinavian legend concerning fairies called the Nacken, who lure people to watery deaths with their otherworldly fiddling. As Patrice George tells it in Fiddler magazine, if an aspiring musician hangs his fiddle over a stream three Thursday nights in a row, the Nacken will play it and infuse it with magic. If the fiddler can then distinguish his own instrument from the identical one he’ll find hanging there with it, he’ll become famous–and if he can’t, well, American fiddler Charlie Daniels spelled out similar consequences in his version of this story, which takes place in the same neighborhood as Robert Johnson’s crossroads.

To insist that the guitar has a bluesy “authenticity” that the fiddle somehow lacks is to do a deep disservice to jazz master Joe Venuti’s raucous jams with Eddie Lang, and to Stephane Grappelli’s bittersweet and airy Gypsy-style runs and spins over Django Reinhardt’s jumpy guitar; to assume that the strings’ classical-music connection requires a sort of forced preciousness is to forget that conservatory veteran John Cale turned his souped-up, cross-tuned, double- and triple-stopped viola into an instrument of poignant mayhem that the Velvet Underground sorely missed after his departure. The rock ‘n’ roll fiddle has added dissonant, eerie color (Vicky Aspinall with the Raincoats), created tension (Jessy Green with the Geraldine Fibbers), and leapt into the fray as another brawler (Susie Honeyman with the Mekons).

What Warren Ellis contributes to this underappreciated tradition is something new: as unchallenged front man of his band, he serves as both lead guitarist and lead singer. It’s often said that the violin is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice, and the absence of lyrics in the Dirty Three’s music gives that “voice” the freedom to spew and sob, to display unrestrained emotion without fear of lapsing into bad poetry. That’s what lends credence to Ellis’s dramatic physical gestures–we’re more willing to accept that he could indeed be overwhelmed by the feelings he’s evoking because those feelings are not limited by words that might not measure up. (Of course, it also helps that fiddle wankery doesn’t look so much like male masturbation as guitar hot doggery does.)

But even a carried-away fiddler has to get down to business, and musically everything is on point–guitarist Mick Turner helps build the extended climax of the ten-minute “Indian Love Song,” providing clean, crisp lines for Ellis to color wildly outside of. The tightly wound waltz of “I Remember a Time When You Used to Love Me,” one of the centerpieces of their latest release, Horse Stories, is muted at the outset by Ellis’s brittle plucking, which maintains the tension nicely until he sweeps himself off his own feet again. “Very sexual, isn’t it?” a stranger said to me then, and I don’t think he was hitting on me, just unable to contain a pronouncement of the obvious.

The erotic power of rock ‘n’ roll has become so diluted by pornlike formulas that this liberation from verse-chorus-verse, hup-two-three-four, is exciting. The Dirty Three surely have their own formulas–drunken heartbreak sound, rushing anarchy sound, melodic musing sound–but they don’t sound like anyone else’s formulas. Even their take on Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” is far removed from faithful re-creation: Ellis recasts the melody to leave just enough notes in place that you know what tune you’re hearing, so you feel the absence where the words should be, so the yearning comes through in a striking patch of vacancy.

Surely not everything that can be said with the guitar has been said, but Ellis’s violin feels freer and lighter–free of stadium worship rituals, free of an expensive and obsessive pedals-and-effects industry. That freedom creates a sense of open space where emotional power can outstrip the ennui that yet another gee-tar played unimaginatively can induce in the longtime rock fan. Why sit down when there’s so much room to move? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dirty Three photo by Marty Perez.