Beck and Dirty Three
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Beck looked out at the pogoing, crowd-surfing bunch
gathered at the Cain's Ballroom on Saturday night and asked, "What
would Bob Wills think of y'all smashing each others heads?'' Then
he and his ace band — two of whom sported cowboy hats — eased
into the country-fried "Lord Only Knows.''
Wills was smiling down on the party from his crusty portrait
over the stage, and the smile could have been somewhat genuine.
Back in the '30s, he was throwing parties like this on the very
same wooden dance floor almost every week, and at times things got
just as crazy, if not crazier, as "these kids today,'' smashed
heads and all. Wills probably would dig Beck, not only for his
frequent dips into prairie-born strum and twang but for his
exceedingly populist campaign of good, good fun and music.
Beck is the ultimate entertainer. His recorded music is one
thing — a brow-raising and astonishingly fluid synthesis of funk,
country, rock and blues — but his live show illustrated to a
sold-out Cain's Ballroom this weekend what that music is all about.
"It ain't about all that (bull),'' Beck repeated throughout the
evening, it's about rocking the beat and having fun.
Rarely has a performer connected with a Cain's
audience the way young Beck did Saturday night. Actually, there was
no connection to be made; Beck took the stage and launched
"Devil's Haircut'' with the link already established. He was
clearly a peer, not an artist high on yon pedestal. Just because
there were squads of beefy security men keeping us from joining him
on stage did not mean Beck was going to exclude us from the party
He spoke to the crowd freely and in earnest, frequently
referring to Wills and not mumbling "Hey, it's good to be in
(tonight's city here).'' He broke into a few spontaneous dance
moves, his favorite being the stop-motion, Herbie Hancock robot
dance. He led the audience through every vibe, every nuance of the
exciting songs. He was with us, and nothing spoke to that fact more
than the absence of projectiles hurled at him. When bands are on
those big stages at Edgefest or wherever, or if they themselves
establish the barrier between performer and audience as a line not
to be crossed, then the reckless audience tries to make that
connection by lobbing lighters and cups and anything else at the
players. When someone like Beck mirrors a jumping good time, then
the only thing to throw is the funk. That is success in art,
especially the debatable art of pop music.
Beck's range is as amazing as it is entertaining. He rolls
out sharp hip-hop, like "Devil's Haircut.'' He pushes the funk in
hit singles like "Where It's At,'' which he played halfway through
Saturday's set. (His music is so in debt to black styles, so why
was the audience so uniformly white?) He screams frightening songs
with vocals so distorted they sound like four minutes of, "I am
the God of hellfire!'' He plays cool, traditional country, with a
woeful steel guitar, in songs like "Road Hog'' (Wills was smiling
for that one, surely). He even plays sincere guitar folk. He let
his band take a break after "Pay No Mind'' so he could play a solo
acoustic number and one that was simply him and his wailing
By the end of the set, when he declared that "tonight, Tulsa
is make-out city,'' the whole ballroom was dancing, even the shy
ones back by the bar. Definitely a good time had by all.
Dirty Three — my personal raison d'etre at Saturday's show — opened
the bill with a stunning performance of incredibly evocative
instrumental music. By my earlier conclusion, we could say that
this trio was perhaps not as successful at connecting with an
impatient audience because they did dodge a few cups, ice cubes and
what-not. (One more flying bit and drummer Jim White may have
surrendered to his rage, leapt over his kit and walloped a few
brats.) For those who listened, this performance was unparalleled
in emotional fervor.
Warren Ellis announces songs with quips like, "This is a
song about waking up thinking you're Elliott Gould, but you're
really Burt Reynolds, so you're (screwed).'' Then he hunches over
his violin like a troll from the family tree of Robyn Hitchcock,
playing much of the time with his back to the audience so that all
we see is a black T-shirt, a disheveled mass of brown curls and the
whipping hairs of a frayed bow flailing about one shoulder. With a
kick from White, the jerky tempo of a Dirty Three song can suddenly
go to warp speed, and then we see more of Ellis. He jumps up and
down like a maniac, sawing at his violin as if it just won't die,
and in a fit of pique — like a startled cobra — he spits at the
This was the greatest entertainment for the bored pre-teens
waiting for Beck. During such a frenzy in "Hope,'' one
particularly juicy loogie was flung at the ceiling and then,
unbeknownst to Ellis, who was lost in his art perilously underneath
the spot, gravity began to pull the syrupy substance back down. It
stretched about two feet before breaking off and falling next to
Ellis, much to the audible dismay of the crowd. When the song was
over, Ellis realized what had happened and said, "Well, I'm glad
we can provide some entertainment for you.'' He spit again during
"I Remember a Time When Once You Used to Love Me,'' and this time
it hit the mark, dripping back into his hair, and one wondered if
Ellis hadn't positioned himself just right that time.
If that's how he must suffer for his art, so be it. His
music, although unfortunately placed on a tour with the wrong
audience for it, is some of the most interesting of its kind.
Down and Dirty
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
A few violin players might complain of the occasional bad
back, but a very select few complain of severed nerves as a result
of jumping off a drum kit. Warren Ellis is among the select few.
When we caught up with Ellis last week, he was nursing an old war
wound, aggravated again by another animated performance a few
"I took a fall off a monitor up in Boston,'' Ellis said. "I
fell on my knee and brought back an old injury when I dove off a
bass drum and severed a nerve. I'm nursing that a bit.''
You might not expect such madness from a violin player,
especially when his band is an instrumental setup, but Ellis
shatters every stereotype with his music and performance. His band,
the Dirty Three, plays the most evocative instrumental music
currently in the rock idiom. Ellis' violin breaks your heart, and
if you can listen to the band's latest disc, "Horse Stories,''
without tearing up at least once, you have no heart.
This is not chamber music, mind you, unless your chamber
happens to be a garishly decorated boudoir full of lonely hearts
brooding and reminiscing in the twilight. Jim White's astonishing
drums and Mick Turner's manic-depressive guitar gives breath to the
songs, and Ellis uses his violin to sigh — sometimes harsh and
scraping like John Cale's most frenetic Velvet Underground moments
and sometimes sweet and weeping like the most masterful Stephane
Grappelli ballads. (Turner's history delves into the scummiest of
Australian rock, from the Sick Things to Fungus Brains, and White
emigrated from The People With Chairs Up Their Noses — a band name
I could not resist printing.)
It still rocks, and Ellis' off-the-handle live shows are not
the stuff of stuffy concert halls. He often lightens the mood with
long, rambling stories of lost love involving such characters as
Meatloaf, Siouxsie Sioux and "that little chap from New Order.''
The concert reviews from around the country have been paragraph
after paragraph of gaping jaws.
All this from an instrumental band — and they're opening for
Beck. What will the restless young ones in that crowd think of
"Some people think instrumental music is a bit of a chore,''
Ellis said, "but you can never tell, really. When you're doing
support spots, people came to see the main band. It's much nicer
that way because then I can just go out and play and let completely
loose. It's different than playing in a club where all the people
came to see you and are expecting a certain thing. This way
nobody's really expecting much from us, and we really divide the
audience. They either love us or hate us.''
Like any youngster with a burgeoning interest in rock music,
Ellis started playing guitar. Meanwhile, he was studying classical
violin for eight years. About four years ago, he'd been hearing
about electric violins, and he decided to try it out. He attached a
guitar pickup to his violin with a rubber band and began playing.
"People began bringing me different effects pedals to try
out. We just sort of plugged them in and turned out this music and
saw what happened,'' Ellis said.
Dirty Three formed shortly after that. Ellis' reputation as a
startling musician spread quickly, and he began working with other
artists, as well. Most notably, he worked with Nick Cave on the
music for the film "The Passion of Joan of Arc'' and a recording
of the dark theme to "The X Files,'' which opens the television
show's tribute disc, "Songs in the Key of X.''
One reason for the expressive quality of the songs may be the
result of one of Ellis' rules: no practicing.
"We never practice,'' he said. "I've never understood bands
who practice for 18 months in a rehearsal room. It probably
destroys any intuitivity about the thing, you know? Music is about
communication. You should be out playing it to people.''
Ellis communicates quite well. When he drizzles his bow over
the strings in "Sue's Last Ride,'' you can almost picture Sue as
she looked to Ellis's character the very last time he saw her. You
don't have to see the title of "At the Bar'' to know that here
Ellis and the other players are exploring the depressant qualities
of fermented grains. These melodies and countermelodies communicate
just as much as a fluid line of poetry if you listen carefully.
"The kind of music that inspires this is stuff with really
common themes — having a bit of a broken heart and such — things
that are very basic to our experience. That's our sort of medium
for communicating. We don't have fireworks or pyrotechnics to draw
people in, and we don't wear makeup ...
"I guess whatever you do is an extension of yourself, a way
of expressing yourself that maybe you can't do verbally. I guess
that means I'm kind of squawky and out of tune inside.''
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.