Few news items this year have brought me as much joy as the return of Dirty Three with their new and excellent LP ‘Toward the Low Sun.’ With every project that Warren Ellis was wrapped up in with Nick Cave it always came with a bit of a bitter pill for me. As much as I loved Grinderman and all of the countless jaw-droppingly beautiful and terrifying movie scores that the pair collaborated on the news would always reach me with a twinge of sadness. Would Warren Ellis ever be able to find the time to get together with drummer Jim White and guitarist Mick Turner to make another Dirty Three album? Until that could happen the likelihood of getting to see them live again grew more and more hopelessly remote.
Seeing them in 2005 at the Metro was an unexpected delight that I wasn’t fully prepared for despite being deep in the throes of being swallowed up by the varied brilliance of their back catalogue. They played for two and-a-half hours and it was over in the blink of an eye.
‘Toward the Low Sun’ has logged repeated spins on my turntable and in my headphones. ‘Ashen Snow’ has been earmarked for my ‘best-of’ mix since I first heard it. The moment they announced a tour stop at Lincoln Hall (aka the best music venue in Chicago) I plunked down the money to make sure I got to go. Stefanie and I arrived early as always, got a few beers and staked out a balcony spot before openers the Cairo Gang. For this set they were in a full-band Crazy Horse-inspired type of setup. It was vastly different to the first time I saw them at the Empty Bottle when they were just an acoustic duo opening for Angel Olsen.
A friend found us on the balcony and pulled up a chair beside us. He had never seen the Dirty Three before; we regaled him with stories of Ellis’ affinity for truly odd stage banter. As we were recalling some examples I was beginning to worry that we were playing it up a bit. Then the band came out and Ellis asked the sound man to make him sound like Jim Morrison before launching into an extended story about how the first song was about being a hemorrhoid on Bono’s ass and wanting to play a song but ‘you can’t because hemorrhoids don’t have fucking arms or legs so it’s impossible’ before they launched into a blistering version of one of the more restrained tracks on the album, ‘Rain Song.’
From there they went right into the chaotic maelstrom of album opener ‘Furnace Skies’ without so much as a nod between the three of them. The beautiful songs grew into ferocious monstrosities with teeth and the chaotic, stormy songs revealed subtleties of raw, fragile emotion. This was serious business. How they are so in sync seems mind boggling and impossible. The control they exert while everything seems like it’s veering off into chaos is unparalleled. Ellis loses one of his shoes while kicking the air, only to casually walk over to where it’s fallen and slip it back on without missing a note. White stacks a tambourine onto every cymbal and drum in his kit, switches from brushes, to sticks, to mallets and back again in between beats, knocking things every which way and all with an effortless efficiency. Turner lopes in the corner pigeon-toed, switching from fingerstyle by pulling a pick out of his back pocket during a downbeat—I watched him wait until the right moment to recover a dropped pick from the floor at one point.
Finally, the graceful calm and aching sadness they can convey simply seems unreal. Case in point was the version of ‘Ocean Songs’ standout ‘Sea Above, Sky Below.’ It was impossible not to be held at rapt attention on the edge of your seat. Ellis would switch from kicking the air repeatedly while attacking his violin into a concentrated hypnosis where he would pull those beautiful melodies that are so familiar but never lose their affect. They played nearly every track on the new album save a few; all of them were extrapolated from their sparse arrangements to great effect.
When they played ‘The Pier’ they went right into ‘Rising Below.’ During ‘Sometimes I Forget That you’ve Gone’ Ellis and White communicated through the cacophony with anguished screams. All of the usual suspects made an appearance, but in nearly unrecognizable forms from their recorded versions or the live versions I heard in 2005—‘Some Summers, They Drop Like Flies,’ ‘Hope,’ ‘Sue’s Last Ride’ as well as the main set-ending couplet of ‘Doris’ and ‘Ashen Snow.’ Every song played as if it were the last they would play.
Before ‘Hope’ Ellis launched into one of his stories only to stop, turn to Turner and say, ‘Wait, what are we doing?’ to which Turner replied, ‘Do a request.’ ‘We don’t have a song called, “Do a Request,” Mick,’ replied Ellis. Throughout the night, people would simply say, ‘Wow’ with each song that ended. It was truly inspiring and special.
When the breakup of Grinderman was announced last year, the first thing I thought after the initial disappointment was, ‘Oh well, at least there might be another Dirty Three album and tour.’ It was worth the wait, most definitely. At the same time, I hope that we don’t have to wait another seven years for their next album and tour. This is music that I need.