Tonight’s sold-out Sydney Festival show brought one of Australia’s most shambolically brilliant (and beloved) bands to the ornate surrounds of the State Theatre as part of a lightning-quick visit back home. It’s the first time the band have played Sydney in four years – to be fair, they do have a pretty packed playing-with-other-people schedule – and excitement is high, judging by the amount of people who’re already seated for the first act.
Support for the evening came from the Ethiopia-born, Finland-raised singer Mirel Wagner, who politely commanded the stage with an acoustic guitar and a brace of songs which sounded like Hope Sandoval singing Swans tunes. It was a quietly refined set of disturbing thoughts, delivered with a charming simplicity. It takes a fair amount of control to be able to start a song as if it were a child’s rhyme but then reveal the bloated corpse beneath the floorboards without sounding like you’re overdoing it, but Wagner carried it off.
I wish I’d known about her Newtown show earlier – I suppose a copy of her album will have to suffice until next time.
The lights, briefly up, went down again as the headlines took the stage. Styled-by-Rasputin gadabout Warren Ellis laid down his violin case and sauntered up to the mic, greeting us with the familiarity that’s remained a hallmark of the band’s nearly 30-year existence while Mick Turner and Jim White got into position. The bonhomie would continue through the night, with pauses taken for reminiscences – where is that dude from Kinselas who said the band would never play in this town again? – and for hugs for people who’d shunned the allocated seating and wandered to the front of the stage. Ellis talked about friends a lot this evening – ones that were in the room and those that had gone – and wasn’t shy about telling individuals that they looked awesome, especially if they were able to tell him what suburb we were in. (Not Glebe or Surry Hills, but close.)
The setlist was full of fan favourites: opening with Horse Stories‘ ‘1000 Miles’ (introduced as a song Stevie Wright should’ve written) was never going to be a bad idea – and sprinkled Ocean Songs and Whatever You Love, You Are tracks amongst others. ‘Everything’s Fucked’ made an appearance as the band’s [failed] attempt to write a hit single. And then followed by ‘Hope’? Jesus, it’s pretty much mournful perfection.
The floor was thrown open to audience suggestions towards the end. Someone wanted something fast, so the trio threw out a ball-tearing rendition of ‘The Zither Player’ which transformed White to a flailing of precisely-tuned limbs.
For a band which doesn’t get to spend much time together, there weren’t really any missteps this evening. You could say part of that is by design – they’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants collective – but it’s just that the three are deeply talented. It’s strange: when you don’t have live sets in as plentiful a supply as they were in the ’90s, you get used to hearing this band as an album. And hearing it that way can make you forget exactly how energetic the music is – how much work goes into pulling it together; how much of it is a whirl of sweat, a miasma of screaming and snap-kicks, of gear going walkabout, of three men straining towards that moment of release where everyone jumps on the one the fucking goes for it.
Fuck, I’d missed it.
Mick Turner remains the eye of the storm, spidery guitar lines dispensed by a man playing with a sense of stillness. Jim White manages to play with an enviable deftness of touch while simultaneously chasing sticks, beaters and assorted tambourines around the set and the stage. And Warren? Well, there was a chair next to his amplifier which did get sat in (once) but mostly was used for its lookout purposes. Combined with the lighting, which threw shadows of the players to the wall behind, it was inspired monkeying-about.
(If you want a masterclass in poise, try and figure out how many other bandmembers get to the last song of the set – the rightfully classic ‘Sue’s Last Ride (Or It’s A Fucking Bummer That You Died)’ – and wait for their fellow players to get things started before chowing down into a banana to keep energies up. Any other show and it’d seem weird, but not so here.)
It wouldn’t be a Dirty Three show without rambling introductions, and Ellis was on form. Some were the same as ever, but I have to say I never thought I’d hear a song begun by a pontification on what the fuck makes Jerry Hall go from Bryan Ferry to Rupert Murdoch, replete with snippets of ‘Do The Strand’ thrown in for good measure. Or about days when even birds tell you you’re fucked. Or about being on mailing lists for tombstones and life insurance. Along with the usual inventions though, there was history retold: Ellis talked about selling speed to supplement the meagre wages of rock and roll (the wages of sin being not much, it seems) and unknowingly encouraging Christy Moore to sing; he talked about semen-infested tour vans; he talked about how he could’ve been in Mad Max except the unitard was a deal-breaker; he talked about amphetamine-fuelled trips up the Hume with White as muscle (“Fury Road’s got nothing on the ’90s!”).
(He also detailed a major Mick Turner disappointment: he’d written a song that was great – until it was realised it was “just ‘Happy Birthday’, but really really slow.”)
But there was seriousness, too. White and Turner were lauded, just before ‘Ember’. And while the usual smart-arsery from the crowd almost derailed it, the dedication of ‘Authentic Celestial Music’ (not their ‘Stairway to Heaven’, but their Low) to David Bowie, in recompense for his shining on us all was a touching point in a show already already full of The Feels, as the internet would have it.
I’ve written about my love for Dirty Three before, but seeing them live again reiterated why they’re my favourite band. They’re at once skilled and rough-as-guts. Slit-your-wrists sad and ebulliently, two-fingers-fuck-you. Rude and elegant. And evocative like no other. Sitting in the State this evening, listening to the cavernous tom heartbeats and looped-violin death memories which urge ‘Sue’s Last Ride’ towards its frantic conclusion, ears ringing, I felt more human than I had for a while. More alive, more emotional.
I thought about all my friends, overseas, who’ve been to gigs with me; here and elsewhere. And of how this trio’s shows are more than just a bunch of fucking tunes; they’re like capsules of sadness, of longing, or anger and fear, but birthed anew each gig with enough love to make it bearable. It’s an inaccurate descriptor, but this is truly an instance where I know that the people I’ve been to these shows with – you know who you are, fuckers -know exactly what I’m talking about. And why I wish they’d been here tonight.
So. I saw a show. It reminded me how fucking wonderful the band are. And how much I miss my friends. But that’s OK.
Because you’re never alone with Dirty Three.