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Live Review: Dirty Three @ Hamer Hall, Melbourne

15 June 2024 | 1:35 pm | Andy Hazel

It very well may have been the best show Dirty Three played in Melbourne in twelve years.

Dirty Three

Dirty Three (Credit: Rick Clifford)

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Judging by the lack of people who look under 40, tonight’s audience will be hoping for rowdily-invoked memories of the 1990s, when the trio we are all here to see would pack bar after bar with what felt like a brand-new style of music. First here in Melbourne, later in other cities across the country, and then across the world.

That intimate sense of being seduced, transfixed, and then overwhelmed is difficult to replicate in the sold-out Hamer Hall, where the band are playing their first of three shows for the Rising Festival. But it is also a natural response shared by hundreds of thousands of people who have heard the music of Jim White, Mick Turner and Warren Ellis.

Two and a half thousand of those people are here tonight, plastic cups of booze in hand, layered up against the cold, filling the seats. As the house lights dim and the cheers subside, Boz Scaggs' seventies rock classic Lido Shuffle bursts from the speakers. With the arrival of its anthemic chorus, familiar to anyone who has ever seen a film at Hawthorn's Lido Cinemas, the three men arrive on stage, the ever stolid White and Turner looking as if they've come to conduct a tax assessment, Ellis as if he has just won the lottery.

"Fucken Melbourne!" he shouts at us. "Fucken MELBOURNE! Well, this is a bit better than The Great Britain," he says, referring to their first-ever show. "No, hang on; what the fuck was that venue on Commercial Road?" "Bakers Arms!" shouts a guy from the stalls. "That's it," replies Warren. "Were you there?" Nathan from the crowd replies in the affirmative. Nathan is promised a t-shirt from the merch desk for helping Warren measure just how far his band have come, a journey that often seems to confound him.

This interaction sets the dynamic for the rest of the night. Maybe around a quarter of tonight's two-and-a-half-hour, ten-song set consists of Warren chatting to the crowd, and the gig is no poorer for it.

The band opens with Love Changes Everything I, the first song from their new album and one that sounds like the Dirty Three clearing their collective throats – all squalling feedback, loops of violin noise, scattering drums, gestural piano and warm fragments of distorted guitar chords.

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Ellis paces the stage, kicking the air and shouting to the rafters, horsehair flying off his bow, white hair and beard flung outward. Like a gelding loosed from a stable, Ellis embodies the spirit of the song and the band with every fibre of his being. Long before the song devolves into squelching feedback, I can't be the only one thinking, "Where can he go from here?" The answer is more, and harder.

The band ease into another, longer and more melodic track from their new album, Love Changes Everything II, which promises that the orchestral qualities that made their late 1990s recordings favourites among so many of their fans is still very much part of the trio's DNA.

"The new album’s out today, the vinyl," says Ellis. "That was a couple of tracks off it. Please buy a copy and send Dirty Three to the top of the charts. When we started out, we were trying to write hit singles," he waits for the laughter to die down. "That never happened." Turner and White wait while Ellis takes a seat at the front of the stage to continue the conversation.

“My people! My people! What’s been going on?” He's up for a chat, and it sounds like everyone wants to get some Waz-time. People shout back, and Ellis either wilfully or mistakenly misinterprets almost everything anyone says. "Taking heroin!" shouts one guy. "Go to Adelaide?" says Ellis. "Is Justin Kurzel here?" Undaunted by the acoustic assault that accompanies every question or observation, the long-time resident of Paris welcomes the chance to be back.

“We were told we couldn’t come on at eight o'clock because our audience was still at the bar," says Ellis. "This is such a fucking nineties crowd.”

Eventually the getting-to-know-the-audience section of the show ends, and we are treated to a journey through what is by any measure a phenomenal batch of albums. "This is one of the first songs we wrote in St Kilda," says Ellis, getting to his feet and returning the microphone to its stand. "St Kilda is a suburb in Melbourne. It used to be a lot of fun. This is called Indian Love Song."

A swaggering, chaotic, euphoric version of the opening track from their self-titled album – 30 years old this year – erupts. It finds room for audience participation and one of White's more notable drum solos of the night. We are now three songs and one hour into the show. Hope, from their album Horse Stories, follows, a gorgeous languid moment amid the chaos. Sea Above, Sky Below is dedicated to the memory of its recently passed producer, Steve Albini. Throughout the night, hundreds of people call for one of the band's most renowned tracks, Everything's Fucked.

Finally, the band oblige with a titanic version that sounds like it could have been the culmination of a long summer's Saturday night at the Tote in the mid-1990s. The cacophonous drawn-out tension, the near silent release of the melodic hook as Turner slides his hand up the neck of his guitar to pluck the bell-like arpeggio, Ellis following with restraint and subtle vibrato. These dynamic qualities are also shown in the stunning songs that follow, Some Summers They Drop Like Flys and Authentic Celestial Music

As we move chronologically through the band's repertoire, tempos slow, and songs stretch out. Looped violins become more frequent, and White, always a figure of calm as he flings his arms outward and upward, increasingly acts as a magnet for the other two. Ellis plays most of his parts facing the drummer, Turner never looks away, and White rarely looks up.

The dynamic, baked in from day one, seems to make the venue smaller as if we could, in fact, be watching a show in a pub in the 1990s. "Do we have a curfew?" Ellis asks someone offstage. The audience, naturally, bay for the show not to end.

After an effort to reopen Hamer Hall's bar fails, and the house lights come on, then off again, the band reluctantly ease to a close with another track from their new album, the delicate and surging Love Changes Everything VI, before returning for an encore of Sue's Last Ride. It was a stunning end to a show that was a lot more than, as Ellis facetiously referred to it earlier in the night, "the best show we've played in Melbourne for 12 years". It’s maybe the best show they’ll play anywhere for the next 12, too.