Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Three is the magic number


"Why aren't you all at Arab Strap?", comes the question from the stage. I'll admit to wavering in deciding to be here rather than next door in the Bar Academy, and, surveying the exceedingly sparse Monday night crowd - perhaps 30 at the most at present - it's evident that plenty of people have succumbed to the temptation of hearing "a drunken Scotsman shouting about his sexual indiscretions". It turns out to have been their loss.

The questioning voice belongs to Josh Pearson. They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can with Pearson. Take a look at his appearance: wild unkempt hair beneath a stetson, enormous beard, massive metal belt buckle modelled on a ram's skull, cowboy boots. If you sawed him in half, it would read "Texan" right the way through like a stick of rock. It comes as no surprise whatsoever to learn that not only is he the son of a preacher man, but he's also spent time working as a ranch-hand.

Pearson used to front Lift To Experience, whose LP The Texas-Jeruslam Crossroads - an extraordinary amalgam of thunderous post-rock and Nick Cave's Old Testament fire-and-brimstone rhetoric - he described as "a concept album about the end of the world where Texas is the Promised Land". His solo material follows along similar lines - tales of sin, redemption and too much whiskey sung in a voice like Mark Lanegan's, deep but somehow angelic too. The final song concludes with the repeated lyric "The devil is on the run / Let's have some fun", and he demonstrates a suitably wicked sense of humour throughout, singing to a former sweetheart "It's the thought of killing you that keeps me alive" in one song and interrupting another to talk about eating Mormons.

My one complaint would be that, as with J Mascis's solo performance at the Social in Nottingham three years back, the sheer volume of the distorted passages of guitar-playing mean that some of the subtleties and intricacies of Pearson's songs are lost. Great to see him onstage, though - some compensation for missing out on witnessing Lift To Experience live.

When Dirty Three emerge, it's evident that some of Pearson's cowboy chic has rubbed off on Warren Ellis, who is currently sporting a sizeable beard. With his long straggly hair, smart shirt and trousers, and slick white slip-ons, he looks like the sort of chap who lives in the woods and is accustomed to surviving on scraps of food pillaged from bins, but has been plucked from his predicament and pimped up on some TV makeover show.

He greets the audience - by now swelled to a still-disappointing 100 at most - and explains his enthusiastic grin with reference to the fact that he has two ancestors that came from Birmingham and that this is the very first time he has visited the city (he's been as close as Wolverhampton before, though - as recently as this time last year, when I saw him playing with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds). One of these ancestors left Birmingham of choice, whereas the other "was asked to leave", having stolen a pair of shoes and a couple of silver spoons. Well, Ellis is Australian, after all - it all adds up. There follow a few moments of indecision when the band ponder what to start with, and then they launch into a raucous tuning-up session that gradually coalesces into a recognisable song, introduced as 'Sea Above, Sky Below'.

I've never heard Dirty Three before, let alone seen them in the flesh, but they really are something quite special. Call them post-rock if you must (an inevitability, really, given their vocalless songs), but they draw upon folk, jazz and avant garde traditions, live up to their name by leaving you feeling as though you've got dirt under your fingernails and are perhaps first and foremost a punk band - at how many Godspeed! You Black Emperor gigs would you expect to see a fistfight break out immediately behind you, as does tonight?

That said, unassuming guitarist Mick Turner never once threatens to become animated, while drummer Jim White - whose percussive invention behind the kit, even down to carefully and repeatedly dropping a drumstick to send it skittering across the snare, is amazing to behold - is a picture of concentration, only rarely breaking into a smile.

Nearly all of the energy comes from Ellis, who, though stood in the main with his back to the audience, is a magnetic presence. His frequently furious style owes much to The Velvet Underground and particularly 'The Black Angel's Death Song', and he attacks his violin with such gusto that several bowstrings snap each song while flailing his right leg out as if possessed. At some points he plucks the violin like a guitar, and at others shouts into the strings.

The set features plenty of material from new LP Cinder, their seventh in 14 years: 'Amy', 'Sad Jexy', and their interpretation of Hungarian fiddler Felix Lajko's 'Zither Player'. Josh Pearson joins them for the latter two, contributing bass and mandolin respectively while smoking a cigarette which comes perilously close to setting fire to his beard. Older tracks like 'Hope' and 'Sue's Last Ride' are also dusted down and greeted with cheers.

What is surprising and incongruous (though pleasantly so), given the melancholy and anger inherent in the music, is that Ellis is so affable if not hilarious between songs. He takes pot-shots at everyone from Iron Maiden to Sting, Phil Collins and Mark Knopfler (who he says he'd thought was Swedish), informs us that "Nine point five out of ten girls prefer combing their hair to Dirty Three than to Robbie Williams" and introduces one song as a Gothic number about when "you open the cupboard and you've got loads of eyeliner but no eyes".

The piece de resistance comes when he explains the solitary song which comprises the encore: "This is a song about listening to Donovan - early records - and taking too much speed ... and taking all the putty out of the windows looking for bugs ... and not being helped by your girlfriend who's screaming that they're coming down the chimney as well"...

If Ellis ever comes to jack in the punk-folk malarkey, then a career in stand-up comedy awaits.

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