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.
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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.