Nicolo Paganini was the principal violin virtuoso of the 19th century. He was also a madman. Wild-eyed in appearance and sinister in demeanor, Paganini made little effort to dispel rumors that he had killed one of his wives and strung his instruments with her viscera.
It was also widely believed that the Italian composer had made a pact with the devil, trading his soul for secrets. People claimed to catch glimpses of an imp perched on his shoulder at concerts, conducting him with tiny demon arms. Paganini would often go into a frenzy when he played--spinning, sweating and jabbering like a man indeed possessed.
Last month during a raging set on the Phoenix Lollapalooza second stage, Dirty Three fiddler Warren Ellis settled for simply puking and passing out.
The Australian instrumental trio's spot on the final two-week leg of the megatour had jacked up the buzz over its recent U.S. debut on Touch and Go Records. But it wasn't the stress of sudden attention that encouraged Ellis to do a Linda Blair impersonation.
"It was burning like a flame in hell up there," the Melbourne native said backstage after the unfortunate incident. "Luckily, I was treated well. They took me onto the bus and gave me cold towels and beer and now I feel much better."
Play your guts out. Collapse in exhaustion. Drink beer. Feel better.
If the possessed spirit of Nicolo Paganini was watching Ellis' performance, he probably saw a little of himself. Like Paganini, Ellis is a brilliant improviser and innovator. Paganini revolutionized violin technique with his furious pizzicato effects, unheard-of tunings and superhuman fingering methods. Ellis is also gunslinger-fast, with a left hand that seems to stretch like rubber, but he has an extra ace up his sleeve: amplification. God knows (or fears) what Paganini might have done if he'd been able to plug in. Ellis provides some indication, utilizing a well-stocked rack of effects to summon an assortment of unearthly voices, from bone-chilling banshee wail to angelic sigh.
But Ellis/Paganini comparisons take a back seat to Ellis/John Cale. Nearly every write-up of Dirty Three since the band came stateside in March to play the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference has contained at least one reference to Velvet Underground's viola player. The parallels, Ellis said, "are total bullshit."
"Just 'cause you play guitar doesn't mean you were influenced by the Beatles," Ellis said. "John Cale was the first person I know of to use the viola in rock, but he was of little influence on me."
Ellis first set himself apart by rigging his fiddle with effects pedals discarded by guitarist friends. "I'd have no idea what would happen--I'd just plug it through and turn them on," he explains. "I wanted to mask the sound, to distort it, change it."
For Ellis, the violin was an acquired taste. "The best violin playing I've ever heard was by this old man on the streets in Budapest," he said. "He'd stop between songs and cough up all this black shit, and his violin was wrapped up with tape. It was the most beaten-up instrument I'd ever seen, but the sound he got from it was pure beauty.
"I grew to like the violin, but I still hated the sound of it in a rock band until a couple of years ago when I picked up the fiddle by accident and learned to play."
Soon thereafter, Ellis, a veteran of the Melbourne music scene (he's played flute, keyboards and violin with the Blackeyed Susans, STM, and Beasts of Bourbon, among others), connected with drummer Jim White and guitarist Mick Turner of the guitar-heavy outfit Venom P. Stinger. They started jamming in the corner of a pub as Dirty Three.
The three Aussies made up their set an hour before their first performance. Not the set list, mind you, but the actual songs.
"We never practice," said Ellis. "We've had maybe half a dozen practices in the last two years. We prefer to just work out the songs onstage. When we're playing, each one of us gets a chance to go for it--no one ever says 'no' to anything, and no one instrument always dominates. We do a blend of structured material and just making it up as we go along."
Dirty Three's brand of improvisation is a tightrope walk. Pull it off, and people go "aah." Stumble, and you go splat (picture the "free jazz" scene from Spinal Tap). True to form, the band's Touch and Go studio album was recorded live in straight shots, no overdubbing. "It's quite representative," said Ellis. "We don't play track-by-track live, so to do it in recording would kill the spirit of the music."
Since the release of Dirty Three, the band has landed supporting slots with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Beck, Henry Rollins, Pavement, and the Beastie Boys. All this from a band without a singer.
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"It's funny how instrumental music has been around forever, but now it's some kind of novelty," Ellis said, taking a final swig of Heineken as his Lollapalooza recuperation continued.
A few feet away, Courtney Love pounded on the keyboard of her laptop and muttered something about painkillers to the phalanx of handlers around her.
"Our songs are usually inspired by quite fucked situations like this," Ellis said, gesturing in Love's direction, "or like falling in love with too many people at once.
"But really, without words they're not specifically about anything. Or rather, they're about whatever the audience wants. This is music you can put yourself into."
Dirty Three is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, September 19, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with Killdozer. Showtime is 8 p.m.