The Dirty Three
Think for a minute about the music that moves you. I mean really moves you -- Otis Redding trying a little tenderness, or John Coltrane exploring a love supreme. Or maybe Leonard Cohen's dress rehearsals for suicides and screwed-up relationships. What is it that moves you? Is it the intensity of emotions conveyed in the lyrics? Or is it the passion of excellent musicians coming through in their playing? Perhaps merely a certain chord progression can make you feel all weepy.Now think of the Dirty Three. Never heard of this Australian trio? DonÕt hold that against them -- their wordless combination of guitar, drums and amplified violin eliminates them from all but the more progressive radio playlists, even as they earn praise from the likes of Sonic Youth, Pavement and Nick Cave (a longtime supporter). Their music can make you serenely contemplative, as on the cave-drip, tranced-out epic ÒKimÕs DirtÓ from their 1996 album Horse Stories (Touch & Go Records). They can ignite your passions, as on the soaring modal holiness of "Indian Love Song," and they can envelop you in a depressing fog, as in the slow wail of "I Knew It Would Come to This." The musicians guide their instrumentals beyond genres. They don't play straight-ahead rock or jazz or international folk forms, yet they incorporate elements of all into their music. At the peaks, and you can find them in practically any song in the three-album discography, the Dirty Three thrusts its music into a realm of wordless brilliance. Can you put your finger on it? No, but when you hear it you can feel the Three tugging your heartstrings.The Three, in its brief career, has garnered a small but zealous audience and a heap of praise in the press. The alchemy with which band members translate musical notes into emotional expression has earned them accolades from the get-go, culminating (in the mainstream ear, at least) earlier this year when the critics of Rolling Stone chose Horse Stories as the third best record of 1996. That news made the mainstream papers in their hometown of Melbourne, Australia. A prime time national current affairs television show in Australia also did a story on them because of it.Still, drummer Jim White insists, "I donÕt feel that we are that big. The reality of driving around touring is still the same."The band formed in Melbourne in 1992 when guitarist Mick Turner, White and violinist Warren Ellis -- all veterans of the Australian underground scuzz-rock scene -- united to create some atmospheric music. Explained White in an e-mail interview, "Our beginnings were in a bar in Richmond, Melbourne, playing essentially background music, getting tired and emotional, with a sense of adventure and the unknown.""I wanted to make music that could touch your soul, that could be unpredictable and exciting," says Turner of the band's formation. These original goals are still shared by the band members today. And their sense of adventure carries through from their recordings into their live sets, which, according to eyewitness accounts, are some of the most unpredictable and exciting concerts in the collective local memory. There can be tenderness, as Turner plucks subdued folk-blues notes and White augments his sound with strategically or haphazardly placed woodblocks and bells on his drumheads. Then an emotional landslide takes place, as Turner scratches out sheets of chords while White conjures and combines the styles of drummers Elvin Jones and Keith Moon. And then there's Ellis, eyes closed tightly, swaying and sawing, wrenching forth some of the most impassioned stringwork of the '90s from his violin.Ellis gets most of the fanfare, probably because it's not every day that you get blown away by a stringed instrument played with a bow in an underground rock context, Rasputina and Ashley MacIsaac notwithstanding. Still, the Three seems to be quite a democratic outfit, with the camaraderie coming through not only in the playing on their albums, but in the way their personalities mesh in the live setting. And a song with a title like "WarrenÕs Lament" serves just as much to show WhiteÕs percussive power and mastery and Turner's ability to transmute pointillist pluckings into beautiful soundscapes as it does to showcase Ellis' fiery fiddling.Though a live Dirty Three listening experience can be an emotional affair, Ellis also provides levity between songs with surreal raps and rants. Breathlessly telling celebrity-studded tales of personal woe like a cross between "Entertainment Tonight" and English pop raconteur Robyn Hitchcock, Ellis can put a smile on an audience memberÕs face just before jumping into a delicate-unto-ferocious performance of a song like "Everything's Fucked"-- handing you back that smile upside down on a torn shred of your own heart.Since leaving their native Australia in early 1995 for what was to be a six-week tour, the Dirty Three has crisscrossed the United States and made several journeys around Europe. They've wowed audiences, critics and fellow musicians with both headlining gigs and support slots for the likes of Nick Cave, Pavement, Beck, even Rickie Lee Jones. "We spent the whole first year away from Australia constantly playing, trying to survive day to day," White recounts.Other touring opportunities followed. But, eventually, they settled in London for a while in 1996 and recorded Horse Stories. And despite the band's rigorous road schedule, when they play at Pontiac's 7th House on Sunday evening, it will mark the bandÕs first visit to the Detroit area since March 1995, when they played one of their earliest U.S. dates at Zoot's Coffee.For a band that started off playing music in rock 'n' roll shacks like Zoot's from here to the Holy Land, this particular tour marks a change in presentation. Like the rest of this tour with quieter-than-thou downer strummers Low, the music on this date will be anything but background music. This is a seated tour, and it gives fans the opportunity to hear some underground rock without having to make concessions to bar-chat decibels or unnecessary milling about by poseurs more interested in being seen than actively listening."We did a show in Minneapolis with Low in a seated venue and it worked really well. This quiet venue worked especially well for Low, but it also changed the kind of show that we could do," White says. Seated or standing, if you're in the audience at a Dirty Three show, you'll be witness to one of the rock scene's best bands. They may not ever be household names, or score an instrumental Top-40 hit. But given the chance, the Dirty Three will move you.As Turner's says, "I thought how great it would be to have a band to go see that you could cry into your beer while listening to them." So just to be on the safe side, you'd better take a hankie.