Songs and Stories with Dirty Three

I’m standing in the front row at Neumos, a mid-size music venue on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, wondering why there’s a mic stand on stage. It’s an object that most concert-goers take for granted, marking the place where the lead singer will stand (for most of the performance, at least). But at a Dirty Three show, it looks peculiar–the trio has no singer, so what use have they for a microphone? Even opener Scout Niblett spent most of her set at stage right, sitting behind her drum kit with her guitar in her lap like a true one-woman band.

My question was answered as soon as the band took the stage. Violinist Warren Ellis, whose bushy, greying beard and wild hair made him look like an old sea captain, immediately approached the mic to introduce the band. And like anyone traveling far from home (in his case, Victoria, Australia), Ellis had plenty of stories to share. Here are a few of the more memorable tales Ellis told in between songs.

Warren Ellis of Dirty Three summons the power of Jon Bon Jovi. | Photo by Zoe Kool

“Rain Song” (or, “I Was A Teenage Hemorrhoid”)

According to Ellis, “Rain Song” is about taking so many psychedelic drugs that you begin to imagine that you’re a hemorrhoid. Yes, this is how he began the show: by asking each member of the audience to think about what it must be like to be some famous person’s swollen vein. Perhaps you might even belong to Bono, “the lead singer of the Irish power-pop band U2”! Thankfully, Ellis’s monologue didn’t get too graphic before he, Jim White and Mick Turner launched into their first song. Ellis’s keening violin makes the rain in this song sound like a deluge, a storm at sea. While the milder-mannered Turner and White held down the rhythm, Ellis pulled off his brown suit jacket and gyrated about while his violin played on a tape loop. This certainly didn’t look or sound anything like a U2 show.

“Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone”

This next selection is supposedly about a communication breakdown. Your inbox is flooded with emails from people you haven’t heard from in a while, but you don’t have enough time to sort through all of them. The hemorrhoid thing didn’t make very much sense in the context of “Rain Song,” but this time, the backstory seems to match the music. Ellis turns his back to the audience from time to time while he plays, locking eyes with the drummer White, following his cues. But when he took a seat at the keyboard to White’s left, the two fell out of synch, each playing his respective instrument (or, in White’s case, beating the living daylights out of it) with seemingly little regard for what the other was doing.

Left to right: Jim White on drums, Warren Ellis on violin, Mick Turner on guitar. | Photo by Zoe Kool

“The Pier”

The story behind “The Pier” was by far the most elaborate and far-fetched of the night. Here’s how you show Mark Zuckerberg who’s boss, Ellis says. Create a Facebook event inviting all the people in the world to Starbucks. (Maybe even the original Starbucks in Pike Place Market, because hey, it’s Seattle.) Then invite them back to your place, where unbeknownst to them you’ve prepared a trap. You’ve taken a pair of your mother’s pajama pants, stuffed the feet with cheese (just go with it, okay?), and stretched them so wide that you can suspend them like a net between your living room walls. When all the people in the world come back to your place (because if they can all fit in one Starbucks, they can probably fit in your apartment), you trap them (and their coffee) in your net, tie it up, and throw it into the Puget Sound (because, of course, you can fit them all in the trunk of your car, or something). Then you’ll be the King or Queen of the World, and bananas will grow in the Arctic, and all the polar bears and seals will drink banana smoothies and sing Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer,” and you’ll have defeated Zuckerberg. Simple as that.

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