By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
One of my all-time favorite concerts was a Dirty Three show, an opening slot for Beck in 1996 in an Oklahoma ballroom. The trio's instrumental rock is haunting enough on record, and in concert the players crackle with intensity.
This particular night violinist Warren Ellis (pictured above, left) sawed at his fiddle like a troll possessed, which isn't unusual. But he kept ... spitting, and straight upward. Lost in concentration, he would occasionally snort, hack and fire off a gob of goo at the low ceiling directly above him. His expulsions collected and collected — and drooped and sagged — until the inevitable occurred.
"That was the show when the loogie fell on my head? Yeah," Ellis remembers, impressively. "That was the only applause I got all night."
Unknown and from Australia, Dirty Three had just broken through with their third album, "Horse Stories," hailed in critics polls and voted by Rolling Stone as one of the top three albums of '96. Since then, Dirty Three has recorded five more albums of dense, emotional instrumental rock — including this year's "Toward the Low Sun" — and Ellis has joined the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, bands led by fellow Aussie Nick Cave, and worked with him on film scores.
Before launching the new tour, Ellis chatted with the Sun-Times from his Paris home about his hard-driving creative process, his position as a default front man and his new soundtrack with Cave for the upcoming film "Lawless," featuring Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees), Emmylou Harris and 85-year-old bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley singing songs by the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Townes Van Zandt and more.
Q: You go into a zone when you perform live. What's happening?
A: I don't know any other way. I've always been like that. When I first started playing, there was an addictive thing about it. It's very much like taking drugs in that you get this kick from it. You don't get it every time, but when you get it you want it again. Nothing else gives me that.
Q: What happens when that doesn't happen?
A: It's terrifying. I get nervous about a bunch of stuff, but the two constant things are going into the studio and thinking, "Is this the day it stops?" and going on stage and it all goes horribly wrong. There are moments when it crumbles and I realize I'm just a dick with a violin. I feel healthy that this happens. It helps me keep my place in the scheme of things.
Q: That's a tough form of self-motivation.
A: It makes me stretch further. The next record I do, I always want to be the best thing I've ever done. I'm still waiting for the day I feel I've done something really, really great. That there's still a part of the experience that's mysterious is what's really attractive about it. Like doing a film score or trying to play a four-string guitar, or a few years ago I put the fiddle down and tried working with things I had no idea how to approach. It renews my interest in the whole thing.
Q: Do you consider yourself a front man?
A: I never have. Usually a singer is, by default, the front guy. That's how bands work. If I'm alluded to as the front guy, it's 'cause I'm closer to the front. But we've never thought about this band in that respect. It's always about the way the three of can go together — the sum of its parts as opposed to anything else. Without any one of us, this would cease to exist. That's always been the really strong attraction of the band.
Q: What — musically more than logistically — made "Horse Stories" such a breakout record for Dirty Three?
A: I don't know. That album was recorded under pretty bad conditions. I was a real mess on every level. The three of us were at war with each other, too. The record was shelved, but we played it for a couple of people who said, "You should put this out, there's really something here." ... I guess there's something quite desperate about it, pretty and desperate. It feels like you're privy to something, like you're sitting in a room with us. It's certainly a very charged album.
Q: The new record, "Toward the Low Sun," had its own difficulty in getting under way. You had writer's block?
A: We kept coming up with material, but it felt like we knew it, knew what was going on with it; it felt familiar. But every time we played live, something great happened. We realized we needed to get the live show into the new material, to give the music space to move around like in concert, open it up to how we react to each other on stage. That was the key. I'd started wondering if we'd ever make another record, thought maybe we'd said as much as we could. ... I was in a creative stalemate. It's a thing that happens to anybody no matter what you're doing. I don't want it to feel easy. I want to surprise myself.
Q: What was the spark that ignited between you and Nick Cave?
A: I don't know. We met in the '90s and I played on a record or two. We push each other. For the time being, it's a relationship that's very creative and productive.
Q: On the "Lawless" soundtrack, you've got some interesting versions of the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat." How'd those come about?
A: That was a joy to be a part of. Getting Ralph Stanley to throw his voice on our versions of these, it just sounded so insane. And it wasn't easy. We couldn't get Ralph to sing in 4/4, and he wouldn't sing in key. But he came out with these amazing versions. The real thing was when we brought Lou Reed into the studio and played them for him. His reaction was extraordinary. He really welled up. He couldn't believe it. Ralph took the song back to a place where it had come from. It was amazing. It certainly feels like one of the things that resonates the most historically that I've been involved in.
with the Cairo Gang
• 9 p.m. Sept. 26
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $18; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Woody Guthrie, despite his aw-shucks Okie persona, was no fool. He knew how the fame game worked — it hasn't changed much, even since his 1940s folksinging heyday — and he seemed to know exactly what would happen to his own musical legacy.
"The hungrier you get up here in New York, the more they run your picture," Guthrie wrote to his younger sister in 1949, inserting a photo of himself from The New York Times. "After you starve clean to the rim of death they call you a professional, and after you die off they call you a great genius."
He continued, foreshadowing the collection of his notebooks, lyrics and artwork that now constitutes the Woody Guthrie Archives: "And when somebody steps in and buys up all of your diaries and scribblings and songs and poems they call you the greatest feller which ever lived, so's your debtors and loaners can get rich off the stink of your dead bones and yaller pages of ideas."
Guthrie himself certainly never got rich off his music, and I don't think anyone else has, either. But as Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter and the overseer of the Archives, told me earlier this year, "The influence of my father's music lives today, and will live throughout the 21st century."
That would have been clear this year — even without a string of celebrations marking Guthrie's 100th birthday.
In a post-Occupy landscape, Guthrie's topical, rabble-rousing spirit seems infused into everything from the street-marching "guitararmy" in New York City and elsewhere, often led by Chicago-area native Tom Morello, to the latest output from Bruce Springsteen (his new album, his SXSW keynote speech).
The varied Woody100 centennial events this year featured many posthumously hailing Guthrie, indeed, as a "great genius." They included six academic conferences (I spoke at one in March in my and Guthrie's home state), folk concerts big (a Los Angeles hoedown in April featuring Graham Nash, John Doe, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Kris Kristopherson and more) and small (Chicago's own tribute show in May), plus exhibits, plays and more. A few more national concerts are on tap — Sept. 22 in Brooklyn (with Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and more) and Oct. 14 at D.C.'s Kennedy Center (with Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne, Donovan, Lucinda Williams and more) — before wrapping the centennial and moving the Archives from New York to its new home in Tulsa, Okla.
Chicagoans can catch one last centennial event — a good one — during the next few weeks.
"Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie," a stage musical presenting just that, opens Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 21 at Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
Guthrie and Broadway? Have no fear. "Woody Sez" is a low-key, high-spirited celebration of Guthrie's music, featuring 30 folk songs (Guthrie's and other traditional tunes). It's far less jukebox musical than a kind of down-home playlist — a splendid swirl of tunes coming and going, each telling and supporting the story.
The Northlight production — featuring the show's creators, Nick Corley (director) and David M. Lutken (starring as Guthrie) — features a simple stage littered with musical instruments: four guitars, mandolin, upright bass, autoharp, dobro, three fiddles, banjo, dulcimer and a harmonica. In an hour and a half, the four actor-musicians keep snatching them up for a verse here, a chorus there, a full song or a reprise. This is how Guthrie lived — applying bits of songs to aid both speech and memory — and it's not so different a method from our own YouTube samples and iPod shuffles. Guthrie just happened to be a walking folk-music Google.
Lutken is great, warmly telling Guthrie's story and differing from his source material only in ways that aren't exactly complaints (unlike Guthrie, Lutken is a tall drink of water and sings beautifully). The cast also features David Finch, the delightful Helen Jean Russell and Austin musician (and formidable "Jill of all trades") Darcie Deaville. They act, they sing, they juggle, they tell bipartisan political jokes.
(There might even be an unintentional gay-marriage laugh in the show. "I married a girl," Lutken narrates as Guthrie, then continues after a slight but significant beat, "Most of us did in those days" — likely an innocent Guthrieism that the Sept. 14 audience reacted to with a slow wave of winking chuckles. Ever-adaptable, that Woody.)
Knitted together by verses from Guthrie's "The Ballad of Tom Joad," "Woody Sez" hopscotches through the folksinger's biography (in fact, taking giant leaps through his later years), ably chronicling what happens when a man with a singular voice not only finds it but figures out what to do with it. "I began to see the difference," Lutken says as Guthrie, "between wanting something to stop — and wanting to stop it."
Guthrie's legacy remains a bottomless well of inspiration for like-minded souls, and these centennial celebrations hopefully seeded more to come.
Deep down, though, Guthrie knew something else about celebrity, and — despite his pure and sainted status — he was happy for the attention. Perhaps channeling Oscar Wilde, he closed a 1948 manuscript with these lines: "I don't care / What you say about me / Just so you say it."
'WOODY SEZ; THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF WOODY GUTHRIE'
• Sept. 21-Oct. 21
• Northlight Theatre, inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie.
• Tickets: $25-$72; (847) 673-6300; northlight.org
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.