Dark Mofo 2019: The Dirty Three and Phurpa

By Charles Shafaieh
Two bands conjure different degrees of devilishness on a Sunday in Hobart

Phurpa perform at Dark Mofo 2019. Photograph by Dark Mofo/Jesse Hunniford, 2019. Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Halfway through the first of two mesmerising shows by the singular instrumental band The Dirty Three at Dark Mofo, violinist Warren Ellis provided the audience with his secret to progressive rock: “Make it really fucking long, and at some point convince yourself that it’s awesome.” There was no need for any such persuading in Hobart, however. Rather, it was two too-short hours during which the band played the entirety of its eponymous first record, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, and a selection of bonus hits. With delight, Ellis dubbed the event “afternoon tea with The Dirty Three”.

Each of the three members exude different energies that keep the trio in a kind of equilibrium. Drummer Jim White acts as a perpetual-motion machine, with an unbroken, calm physicality and facial expression that suggests he could continue playing for eternity, despite the ferocity of both his sticks and footwork. While it could be said that White makes his job look effortless, guitarist Mick Turner appears categorically nonplussed, as if he were tinkering at a melody alone in the privacy of his living room. And then there is Ellis on the violin and occasional accordion. With a wild, unkempt appearance that conjures images of demons from Germanic mythology, he moves with full-body spasms and frequently emits war cry–like shouting that can be heard without effort over the amplified instruments. The display, for lack of a better term to describe his entrancing and at times almost terrifying movements, evokes scenes of Pentecostal spirit possession – an apt comparison for a Sunday performance at Dark Mofo, which features an ongoing conversation with Christian themes and a decidedly different position on the notion of salvation and transcendence than almost anyone attending mass nearby.

It’s possible to talk about the rise-and-falls of the raucous “Indian Love Song”, which was extended here both in time and sonic magnitude beyond the ten-minute version that begins the album, or the sombre “Kim’s Dirt”, during which Ellis created an ethereal high-pitched hum by swinging vacuum-cleaner tubes until you thought he might fly from the stage. (It should be said, though, that Ellis flying seems like a possibility during any song.) But doing so would compartmentalise a performance much more epic in scope than can be encapsulated by discussions of individual songs. Including the stories told between numbers about boot sales and drunken, drug-fuelled evenings on and off tour (we also learn of Ellis’s love of the television show Fleabag), this is a performance equal in energy and ecstatic depth to any conventional religious service, and one that must be considered in its sublime totality – a rarity in an era when shuffling between songs on Spotify before they have even finished is now commonplace.

The sense of devilishness that Ellis, as Paganini and other virtuosic violinists before him, only suggests is made manifest by the Russian music collective Phurpa, who performed late that same night. The trio’s leader, Alexey Tegin, might describe them as performers of mantras inspired by the ancient pre-Buddhist Tibetan Bön tradition, but this would only approximate an experience that gives the impression that whatever it is they are doing on stage might actually open a portal to the underworld before its conclusion.

As Phurpa began their performance at 1.00am in the Odeon Theatre, there was a definite sense that the few dozen of us in the audience shouldn’t have been there – that this kind of tantric ritual was meant for rooms behind closed doors and, even then, only for the initiated. As the musicians slowly donned layers of ragged black cloth including oversized hoods, and an intense, droning bass shook both the room and the bodies within it, it seemed that the hellish energy from the day’s previous concerts, which also included the Swedish doom-metal group Candlemass, had accumulated and been distilled to produce a kind of uncut terror that exceeds language.

Accompanying the near-constant and intense throat singing was the beating of a drum, as well as the clash of tiny cymbals which, amplified beyond levels associated even with heavy metal, sounded as if the wrath of the gods was being taken out on the planet. Claps also occurred, pieces of fabric were thrown occasionally, and a beverage was poured from a thermos and consumed. Long, narrow rectangular sheets of paper, perhaps bearing instructions or a sacred text, were visible as they were turned over and over again. Shells were blown, too, as were horns and smaller gyalings, which are oboe-like in appearance and here suggested a kind of fever dream of finding oneself inside a hornets’ nest. Whether these instruments were used according to any prescription or if it was pure improvisation was unclear, as was virtually everything else about the performance.

One young woman in the audience appeared to be trying to groove, but to what precisely I could not discern, as no rhythm could be detected in these emanations. Everyone else standing near the stage, or on their backs near the rear of the stalls, or seated in the balcony was fixed in place, their faces conveying an uncertainty about what they were experiencing or why at that hour they were still in a room in which the reverb was so strong that it made you believe you could feel your brain rattling in your skull. That one man wearing an Eyehategod hoodie who had heckled the trio near the start by shouting, “Play some metal, you homos!” had not left 90 minutes later seemed indicative that what Phurpa was tapping into may surpass consciousness.

Some reminisce about the early days of Dark Mofo, with memories of single individuals being “kidnapped” and taken to exclusive raves and other bewildering, near-private experiences. Though likely less joyful than anyone taken to a boutique dance party, those lucky, perhaps damned, few who remained with Phurpa into the midnight hours and beyond may have experienced a sense of those early, unpredictable years.

Charles Shafaieh

Charles Shafaieh is an arts journalist based in New York City. His writing on music, theatre, literature, film, and visual art has appeared in The New Yorker, The Irish Times, The Times Literary Supplement and other international publications.

Phurpa perform at Dark Mofo 2019. Photograph by Dark Mofo/Jesse Hunniford, 2019. Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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