Wednesday April 9th, 2003 at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA

The Dirty Three, & Thalia Zedek

The Dirty Three The Dirty Three Thalia Zedek Thalia Zedek [more]

For the longest time, this show was simply billed as The Dirty Three with no opener. Everyone assumed that the club would find someone, but no one seemed to know whom. Of course, it really didn’t matter; the club would fill up on the strength of The Dirty Three alone. However, sometimes I forget I live in Boston now, and thus the search for an opener doesn’t end in the nameless group of college buddies riding the current wave. Sometimes the search culminates with rock stars who have called Boston home.

Whether Thalia Zedek currently calls Boston home, I can’t say. I can tell you that her career as a Boston musician goes further back into the 70s than most of us can remember. Her groundbreaking work with Dangerous Birds, Uzi, Live Skull, and ultimately fronting Matador noisesters Come was always critically acclaimed, though seldom accessible. After Come’s demise (or permanent hiatus), no one was surprised when Zedek returned to the stage as a solo artist. Those closest were probably not even surprised at her reinvention as a smoldering crooner bent on jazzy torch songs enveloped in sorrow. All might be surprised to hear the rumour that Zedek’s return to music was promoted by the urgings of The Indigo Girls. While the sonic realization of each of her musical endeavors has been different, the common thread has been intelligence. Regardless of the genre, she makes thinking (wo)man’s music. However Zedek would choose to present herself at the Middle East, I knew I’d be in for a treat.

By 11pm this show was probably a sell-out, but at 8pm I was the only one waiting for the doors to open. At 9pm only a dozen fans stood at the edge of the stage to welcome Zedek. By the end of her first number, however, the uninformed had become the impressed, and most pushed forward en masse. It feels good to be in the know on occasion.

As only a passive fan, the details are fuzzy from here on out. Zedek was joined on stage by both drums and violin. Whether permanent fixtures of a current solo project or members of a revolving group of friends, I can’t say. I can’t even provide names. Furthermore I can’t tell you what they played. I don’t know the names, nor do I know where the majority of the songs came from. I do know she played 1926 from her debut solo CD, and, according to the scrawled setlist, the final song was identified only as “New Song.”

Not only does Zedek have a varied past to cull her setlist from, but her current material is built on an eclectic foundation as well. While all this variation left the set without a definable sound, there was an overall theme. Zedek’s music seems desperate, or more accurately just past desperate. Depending on the song, she has moved on to resignation, into recovery, or simply returned to denial. Expectedly, Zedek is a compelling frontwoman, but not an exciting one to watch. Always reserved, she didn’t interact much with the audience, or even really make eye contact. Was it nerves or simply an artist looking to avoid the clichés and only present her art without adding biases? I might guess a little from column A, and a little from column B. Zedek has definitely had her demons.

For the majority of the set, Zedek strummed clean, bright chords on a vintage Hagström guitar. While I might have detected an odd tuning or two throughout the night, my pitch is far from perfect and giving any more details than the above is completely out of my league. Her voice is not exactly rough; it’s more aptly described as earthy. Plain even. Deep, with a slight warble. Her vocal lines seldom ventured outside of a small range, and when they did, they often clashed with the violin. During the choruses of several songs, there seemed to be a real battle for dominance between the two. Although this was an obvious issue of rearrangement to fit the stage, the side effect was a pleasant sort of tension. If intentional, I give Zedek and her band an A+ for subtlety and for their attention to detail.

Like the guitar, the drumming was remarkably clean. There was very little in the way of fills and no flash. Without a bass, percussion was solely responsible for providing the consistent and low-key foundation. The violin, however, is never an instrument to be stifled. Although generally lyrical and meandering, a mélange of effects pedals would occasionally bring the instrument to writhing, howling, or droning backdrops. In the most extreme moments, the violin seemed to channel the songs of the humpback whale – shrieking, moaning, echoing – as the bow slid fluidly across its strings.

When all the parts were assembled in every possible combination, the result was a set of honest songs, told directly, espoused wearily. Flashes of folk, blues, Americana, and rock all combined to create some new post-something or neo-post-something. However when taken at face value, Zedek’s music is cathartic and comforting, but surprisingly, it’s not especially original or engaging.

I imagine there aren’t many nights when violin players pass each other on the Middle East’s stage. Of course, as Zedek and her troop removed their gear from the stage, violinist Warren Ellis and the rest of Australia’s The Dirty Three began placing theirs.

The first thing to know about The Dirty Three is that despite their stature as a threesome and their current touring configuration as a foursome, the band is entirely about Ellis. Ellis provides every bit of motion, every bit of personality. His violin provides the biggest sweeping changes, the most enthralling squalls, and all the mournful moments. The stage could be filled with a dozen musicians, but the audience would only see Ellis. The others are important, even crucial, to the band’s rich, textured sound, but it’s Ellis who commands all eyes.

Although The Dirty Three is an instrumental band, Ellis spent a great portion of the night behind a microphone. Nearly every song was introduced by long, contradictory, drunken ramblings, soliciting great laughter from a sympathetic crowd. Occasionally a wise guy might shout up something to confuse Ellis, and the whole audience would be subjected to Ellis’s blank stare and stoned smile while he tried to make sense of the quip. Eventually he’d wave it off (quite literally at times) and then begin his story again.

Because describing a memorable instrumental to a friend is often akin to handcuffed mime, instrumental songs often fade into each other. These exaggerated openings gave each song a colorful origin and the pneumonic hook required to avoid clumsily singing violin parts to your housemates.

While the audience was regaled with many visceral stories, my favourite might have been the mental movie that began by maxing out a lover’s credit cards, renting a fast car, and driving west. Ellis continued the story, noting that when the car ultimately dies or runs out of gas, one should grab his or her sleeping bag and head out into the desert. It is also important that the protagonist leave the radio on so that when the police find the vehicle the battery will be stone dead. The band then began a song that accurately captured the quiet, fulfilled oneness of cold desert stars.

Another song was told to be about finding oneself in a hole. Rather than trying to escape, however, Ellis suggested that one might decorate and live in it, for no other reason than never having been in this hole before. Despair plays a big part in The Dirty Three’s music, but this song seemed more about resignation. Despair would be too active; this was about living with circumstances, no matter what they were. There was no questioning, no reflection, no reason to fight back.

Most of The Dirty Three’s music, however, does fight back. It’s an essential part of the band’s pattern.--a pattern repeated religiously throughout each of the band’s songs, albums, and performances. The rule dictates that each song must begin with the soft sob of a lonely bowed violin. This sets the foundation to accept gentle rolling drums and, eventually, a guitar picking slowly through minor chords. The band slowly builds its song in intensity, in density and in volume, until a seamless shift is evinced by a violin that is no longer bowed, but cathartically strummed (abused.) The violin’s normally glum tone is now augmented by raging distortion and bewildering echo. At this point, form and structure have vanished and only sonic waves and crests are recognizable. Slowly the tide returns to the sea and once again the violin is bowed, the guitar is picked and the drums plod softly with felted mallets.

Although the band’s long set and genuine encore obeyed this pattern, the performance never seemed dictated. In fact, an indescribably emotional, nearly religious connection seemed to define the evening more than anything else. There was revelry and laughter – this wasn’t the quiet sophistication of Godspeed You Black Emperor! – but there was also an underlying pathos between the foursome on stage and their eager and appreciative audience. In this way, The Dirty Three’s take on tenderness and terribleness meant much more to me than the much-hyped GYBE! show at the grandiose Roxy only a week before. It’s also inspired me to seek out The Dirty Three albums missing from my collection.