Posted January 28, 2010

THE DIRTY THREE
(performing "Ocean Songs")
+ LAUGHING CLOWNS
(performing "The History of Rock 'n' Roll Vol 1")
Enmore Theatre, Enmore, Sydney
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

By THE BARMAN

The annual cultural carpet bombing of this fair Harbour City (aka the Sydney Festival) usually passes me like a taxi at changeover time after a marathon Christmas party. I'm invariably out of town, staring at grazing kangaroos through the bottom of a beer bottle or wistfully gazing into the distance wondering whose turn it is to buy the ice for the Bloody Mary.Last year was an exception with the stunning All Tomorrows Parties extravaganza falling under the Festival umbrella and necessitating an early return to hot and cold running water. The same applies to the first of 2010's Don't Look Back events, this one featuring the Dirty Three and Laughing Clowns.

Generally speaking, cultural festivals are for the cashed-up and upwardly mobile. Not getting all bolshie here (far from it) but anything with the whiff of government about it is tailored to a certain (voting) demographic. Bread and circuses. Your taxes at work. The free opening night of festival "tasters" is a great idea for the masses but once that act of charity is dispensed, it's down to the serious business of generating cash flow to pay for all the overseas artists. Plus a bit of preaching to to the hopelessly converted.

Speaking of which, there's a bit of that tonight. It's a weird mix of people that treks to the Enmore Theatre this Australia Day. Fortunately down on bogan content - can you imagine chanting "Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi" to an instrumental trio with violin as the lead instrument while clad in boards and the national flag? - and on the face of it, it's the usual older rock and roll crowd. A sprinkling of accountants, ageing ex-junkies, a handful of uni students and lots of seedy wash-outs (that'd be me.) Probably a larger quotient of women, and although empirical evidence of this is thin on the ground, most seem to be above-average intelligence and/or tertiary educated. They also seem to be firmly divided between Laughing Clowns fans and Dirty Three devotees.

I fall into the former so maybe i notice the desultory few, no more than 20, who sit in front of each PA stack while the Clowns play. Now I know they're not exactly a dance band but this strikes me as weird. It's uncomfortably warm inside but there's a bar area if you want to keep cool or talk shit. To sit lamely on the sidelines because you don't know the material seems churlish and rude, to paraphrase an Ed Kuepper lyric.

Speaking of material it's a compilation album, "The History of Rock and Roll Volume 1", that the Clowns are reprising tonight. That the band was just about imploding when it came out has been lost in the wash. But, yes, that is a ridiculous title. I knew that back in the day when I wasn't a fan but I appreciated the self-deprecating pisstake that it represented. For a band that sounded/looked serious, this was a statement that things were maybe not as they seemed. Of course the music press were unable to get a handle on the Clowns and continually played up leader Ed Kuepper as a "difficult" interview subject which further perpetuated all that. I won't go into the "it's jazz/it's jazz-punk" stuff; bottom line was the Clowns took up where the Kuepper Saints left off and if the music demanded more of the listener than the many ordinary post-punk bands with which they were critically grouped, then that was too bad.

All's in readiness at 7.55pm - including me who's landed in front of the crowd barrier with a modest digital SLR camera slung around the neck and a luminous photographer's pass defiantly refusing to stick to my sweaty cotton shirt. I feel like I'm standing at the urinal next to John Holmes with all these professional photographers and their long lenses making my borrowed kit look extremely un-well hung. The Barmaid's graciously (sic) allowed me to borrow her Canon EOS while my Sony's being held to ransom by a repair technician for Al Qaeda, sorry, Caringbah Camera House. Hate to speak of those I'd will to be dead but 190 bucks for a shutter release button?

The Laughing Clowns were my highlight of the Cocktaoo Island ATP but I missed the mid-year Basement gig, so tonight's shaping as something special. Keyboardist Alistair Spence is first in place with a carefully-lit incense stick in a plastic cup at his feet and a job at hand. The rest of the Clowns arrive as one a minute later and enter into an instrumental warm-up that evokes rapturous applause. Ed Kuepper's ironic response is to thank everyone for coming and wish them goodnight.

The band has an hour to play a 40-minute LP in its entirety but if you're thinking that leaves room for extra songs at the end, think again. Not that you could complain as they test the pliability of the album tunes and probe new arrangements.

Ed Kuepper playing songs from "The History of Rock and Roll Part 1"

"Theme From 'Mad Flies, Mad Flies'" surges out of the PA and we're off, Louse Elliott punching that stuttering sax home while Jeffrey Wegner skittishly propels the song forward. Biff Miller's sticking to electric bass tonight (that upright number must have fallen victim to excess baggage charges) but he and Jeffrey sound amazing.

So many highlights but one that sticks like dung to a doona is during one of the tense silences at the end of "Collapse Board" when Ed holds back the resumption of the song interminably and Biff Miller laughs as if it's all too much. It could be the most mournful song ever written but it's intensely hypnotic . It's the spaces in the tune that makes it work and I forget to run the stopwatch but it must have been a 15-minute version.

"Ghost Beat" grows new wings and "Sometimes (I Can't LIve With Anyone)" lurches and swings at the same time tonight. It's over too soon.

You only get three songs to shoot at shows like this so I return to the photography pit after a quick beer and settle in for the Dirty Three to deliver "Ocean Songs." The stark staging with pin lights behind a massive white drop-sheet is effective; when a band starts, the waves of sound make the backdrop vibrate and it throws patterns up and down. Trouble is that the Dirty Three use some minimalistic lighting to suit the quieter songs and it's a bastard to shoot in such low light when you're a photographic dolt. But we press on.

It must be a tougher gig being Warren Ellis who has suddenly emerged as the Yoko Ono of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. You know, the one that broke-up the band - or at least brought on the departure of Mick Harvey? I don't Jack Shit (I did have a drink with him in a bar once) but that's what I keep reading on music chat sites. Logically, there might be a grain of truth to the suggestion that Mick felt like a spare prick at a wedding with Warren's ever-expanding musical role.

There's no such questioning the guy's place in the belly of this beast. He's the beating heart, if not the liver (analogy used under advisement.) Tonight, Warren Ellis is squarely at the middle and the real focus of attention from the get-go. He's the Shane Warne of violin playing, making it cool to take up a lost and/or nerdy art. A bit like Ian Anderson did for the flute? Nah, Jethro Tull sucked whatever way you cut it.

A quick aside: I crossed paths with the Dirtty Three at the 1996 Big Day Out and my memory is they (along wiht Radio Birdman) played a godawful exhibition hall at the old Sydney Showgrounds where the acoustics of a massively high ceiling rendered them (and everybody else) unlistenable. They were quite the rising stars but I and many others dismissed the D3 as wanky and stalked off towards some other stage. So I'm not a first-timer.

This time out, the D3 are internationally acclaimed and playing Australia for the first time in several years, members living overseas and/or otherwise engaged. From Ellis' opening gambit of quoting Jimbo Morrison ("Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin.") to him claiming they were about to play Supertramp's "Crime of the Century") he's the deliverer of some five-star patter. And that's all before they played a note.

Not to get personal, but The Dirty Three are an odd-looking band. Ellis comes across as a hyperactive waiter at a down-market Greek taverna, the sort who'll turn up to work sozzled and stand over your shoulder to make sure that every last bit of whitebait's off the plate. For much of the set he stands back to the crowd, adding accents to key pieces of music with spastic pirouettes.

Drummer Jim White is looking mildly David Crosby-like as and crawls over his kit, looking like the cook in the kitchen out back adding every spice he can lay his hands on into simmering pots. You also get the sense that if you send a steak back to his grill you might get it returned with him and a meat cleaver ifollowing in rapid succession. At stage right, taciturn guitarist Mick Turner is buisness-like and brooks no trouble. He's is the maitre' d who'll be turfing you out after you have one red (bottle) too many at the end of the night.

"Sirena" is an unassuming album opener but it's imbued with a real fury live. I'm surprised. The rest of the album follows, naturally enough, Ellis giving between-song insights into what each was about, although you can probably abscribe whatever you want to each of them since there are no lyrics to interpret.

Meanwhile, back in the pit, there's an attractive female photographer with whom Ellis strikes up a conversation between tunes. She senses the slavish devotion that's in this crowd and shoots some audience pictures as they press the barrier. She's also invited by Ellis to stay ("the cute one can stay - the rest of you can go") after the mandatory three songs.

"Ocean Songs" is undulating art rock, a collection of clean tones and subtle percussion that's almost somnolent in places. On record, no one instrument dominates. Not the sort of thing you'd think would translate to a few thousand people in a mid-sized theatre. Ah, but I don't know the album intimately and I'm in the minority. It takes Ellis' violin to amplify the dynamics in this setting.

It's not really my bag and it doesn't take long for the songs to merge in my mind, but you have to give props for a band that can consistently pull people in and make this work.

Jeffrey Wegener at work in the Clowns rhythm laboratory.Master drummer Jeffrey sits on a feel.

Singalong with Ed
"Yeh, my people." Ed leads a singalong.

Louise Elliott in action in sensible sandals. Louise Elliott looks for her bucket hat roadie.

Alistair Spence behind his keyboards. Alistair Spence at work for the Clowns.

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