The Dirty Three: Two Theatres

The Dirty Three are just as comfortable treading the boards of an old country theatre as they are one of Australia’s most hallowed stages. Photos by ANDREW WATSON* (Castlemaine) and *NIK THORUP (Sydney).

Theatre Royal, Castlemaine

Sunday, March 18
Capacity: 350

by Darren Levin

Castlemaine’s Theatre Royal is nothing like the quaint country theatre its name implies. Established in 1858, it’s the oldest continually operating theatre on the Australian mainland, outlasted only by its Hobartian namesake, 20 years its senior.

The Royal is a far cry from the rural version of Melbourne’s The Palais or National Theatre I was expecting, and an absolute gulf apart from the Opera House, where the band will play in just three days. It’s more like something between a school auditorium and one of those shelled-out old movie theatres you see in ?80s slasher flicks. There are no seats tonight – except for a mezzanine level. The walls are adorned (if that really is the right word) with old Bogart and James Dean posters, and there are makeshift signs everywhere reading, ?No flash, no video, no pokies.? Two of those rules will be openly flaunted tonight – I’ll let you work out which ones.

We arrive just as the Dirty Three are midway through ?Sometimes I Forget You’ve Gone? from the new album Toward The Low Sun: Warren Ellis poised at a red electric piano, Jim White directly behind him on the drums, Mick Turner staring at an imaginary spot side of stage. (He’ll stay this way, seemingly without flinching, for the entire gig.) They’re playing against a huge silver curtain that casts huge shadows against the roof, seemingly with minds of their own. The track is a loose, free jazz kinda number, and White – to borrow a reality cooking term – is its ?hero?. As the song builds in intensity, it sounds as if gunshots are ringing out against the walls.

I’m in perpetual awe of Jim White, the Jackson Pollock of modern drumming. He makes even the most complex fills look so effortless, and he barely works up a sweat during the massive crescendos that close out songs like ?I Remember a Time When Once You Used to Love Me? (dedicated to a publican in Richmond, where the band cut its teeth in the early-?90s); Hope*, another request from a local woman who named her baby after the song; and *Rising Below, the first single from the new album, played with far more urgency and tension than its recorded counterpart.

As it concludes in a violent storm of violin feedback and more even more gunshot blasts, my travelling partner and I look at each other, mouths agape, as if to say, ?This was worth driving an hour-and-a-half on a Sunday night for.? During penultimate song ?Ashen Snow? – a lullaby for the road, which sees Ellis on the piano again – White easily flits between brushes, mallets and sticks without missing a beat. He’s that rare drummer that makes accidental rimshots sound like the most beautiful thing.

?My violin hasn’t been so out of tune since New Orleans,? says Ellis in acknowledgement of the sweaty intimacy of this gig, ?that can only be a good thing.? He’s clearly in his element here – amid this crowd of rowdy country types and a few Melbourne blow-ins – taking requests, sharing jokes, leading us in call-and-response owl calls, and trotting out the same banter he’s been doing all tour, albeit with a few localised twists. (He later confesses he’d like to tour here for a week.)

Tonight’s recurring joke centres on a tryst between Bono and Gina Rinehart that ends up with the pair buying a pie shop ?three clicks away from Castlemaine?. There’s also references to Phil from Grinspoon and over-the-counter Pseudoephedrine (unrelated); and Port Macquarie and Bunning’s, which Ellis confesses he’d like to live in. ?Everything’s Fucked? is preceded by a line I’ve heard a hundred times about ?finding yourself in a hole, decorating it and deciding to live there for 15 years?, while ?Some Summers They Drop Like Flies? – which I last saw them perform in a carpark at Melbourne Laneway – is described as ?sex on a stick? even though it’s ostensibly about grief.

The band leave the stage after two hours, returning for a particularly loose encore featuring on-stage interpretative dancing from a local in a red dress during ?Sue’s Last Ride?. She’s not a particularly great dancer, and we hold our collective breaths as she nearly face-plants into the crowd, but my word it’s a wonderful thing to witness: raw, free, unpredictable, spontaneous, strange. It’s the kind of thing you’d never see at a soulless mid-sized venue or, indeed, Australia’s grandest stage.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

Wednesday, March 21
Capacity: 2,679

by Aaron Curran

As Ellis, Turner and White stride across the sparse but dramatically-lit stage of the sold-out Concert Hall, one wag shouts above the applause, ?I wish you were my dad, Warren?, and we all laugh but know exactly what he means. All night lots of ?little voices in the dark? (Ellis’s words) will make an effort to engage with the violinist, and both the comfort with which they do so and the ease with which he responds reveals a rare relationship between audience and performer.

The trio kicks things off with ?The Rain Song?, a highlight of their new LP, but it’s a scrappier and more devilish rendition than the recorded version. Ellis faces off against his bandmates before kicking and shouting his way to centre stage. He spices the mix with the first of many irreverent violin and vocal loops that give a gritty, unpredictable texture to tonight’s arrangements. There is an immediate sense of volatility to their performance, with an edge that was lacking from their last Ocean Songs shows in 2010. They also look like they’re having a lot more fun (well, except for Mick, who pretty much looks the same every tour. Does that man never age?)

Warren moves to his keyboard for ?Sometimes I Forget You’re Gone?, the first of a quartet of tracks from the new album. ?Rising Below? chugs along with brio, ?The Pier? snakes and twists like memory, and ?Moon on the Land? soars with grace and danger. Avoiding old favourites for half the set is usually a cue for audience restlessness and request-hurling but, given the quality of these tracks and the intense focus of the band’s playing, that happens rarely tonight.

Ellis? between-song patter is equal parts sincere truth and hallucinatory comedy and at the Opera House he excels himself, whether recollecting locking himself out of his hotel and ?having to? set fire to a rubbish bin and expose himself to the surveillance cameras in an effort to be readmitted (it didn’t work), or paying tribute to fallen heroes of television like Ian Turpie and ?Sir Don? Lane. We’re told about how he played pinball on magic mushrooms and became the ball, and how Justin Bieber’s hair is responsible for widening the hole in the ozone layer. A highlight is his scurrilous rant about becoming a boil on the arse of Gina Rinehart, as she meets, sleeps with and marries Bono, before opening up a Harry’s Caf? de Wheels franchise and building a better life together selling pie floaters in Wollongong and Part Macquarie.

Jim White’s drumming is a captivating thing to watch. He looks like Lord Byron in torn black jeans, the sticks rolling and tumbling across the skins with louche ease, his vigour unfailing. After a storming ?Some Summers (They Drop Like Flies), we get ?Restless Waves? (one of Warren’s dad’s favourites, apparently), then a Vegas-style version of ?Everything’s Fucked? – that ??90s classic that should have been a pop smash and taken over from ?Eagle Rock? and ?Who Can It Be Now?? around the campfires of Australia? – with Warren enjoying his spoken intro so much that he strings it out for a couple of extra minutes, as White and Turner snap and strum behind him.

?What time does this pub shut?? says Warren as the evening slips away. Set closer ?Ashen Snow? loses some of its on-record delicacy but not an ounce of its melody or dignity, despite Ellis pounding his keyboard until it gives up those last desperate notes. For the encore he falls to the ground at the base of the drum riser, lying flat on his back whooping and bawling, as his bandmates spark up an epic ?Sue’s Last Ride?. Ellis picks himself up and gives the last of his strength to the song, encouraging the audience to howl along with him, and his final utterance is a scream directly into the pickup of his violin, which he loops and leaves running. White’s percussion plays against this strange echo circling around the hall until, ever so gradually, the song gives up the ghost.


####The Dirty Three’s national tour concludes tonight at Starcourt Theatre in Lismore, NSW, the home of Grinspoon’s Phil Jamieson.