“Playing in church – this is what got Pussy Riot into trouble isn’t it?” says Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis in his typically droll manner, with his left leg suggestively perched on a monitor. Manchester Cathedral is now the city’s landmark venue. It recently hosted Daniel Johnston, Anna Calvi and Lambchop, has shining acoustics, its architecture is hypnotic and a member of the cathedral’s clergy always gives a heartfelt welcome to the gathered. This, along with the BBC sitcom Rev, is the forward thinking side of the Church of England – the one the House of Laity won’t approve of.
Bristol-based Zun Zun Egui open, with singer Kushal Gaya initially cooing into his microphone while swaying from side-to-side, before delivering an exorcising cry that wakes the audience and prompts bassist Adam Newton, drummer Matthew Jones and keyboardist Yoshino Shigihara into delivering psychedelic rock with infusions of Afrobeat and Brian Eno and David Byrne My Life in the Bush of Ghostsesque funk. At one point, Jones plays the hi-hat like a tabla and Gaya drifts into Creole, French and Japanese throughout the set: entirely unpredictable and curious, with obvious world music links. Saying that, towards the end, Gaya’s breathless moaning and the growing psychedelic funk-edge become somewhat comic: it all begins to feel a little erotic thriller. Nevertheless, building on their 2011 debut, Katang, this is the trippiest music this side of The New English Hymnal – enjoyable.
Dirty Three’s Ellis greets the audience with an announcement: “Jim White’s on the toilet.” After drummer White arrives on-stage, Ellis jostles with the sound man about his microphone: he wants less Benny Hill, more Jim Morrison. Once achieved, he introduces Rain Song, from this year’s Toward the Low Sun, as an expression of who you’d least rather be reincarnated as: Robbie Williams or Chris Martin. He goes for Martin, mainly because of his offensive cover of Beastie Boys‘ Fight for Your Right. He strums his violin like a guitar, becoming progressively more impassioned, before throwing his jacket off to reveal a polka dot shirt, red spots on blue. With his back to the audience and spasmodically throwing his right leg out in the direction of bassist Mick Turner, Ellis releases these primordial – almost sacrificial – cries, presumably common place on the British Isles before the arrival of Augustine, while the consummate White drums at such a pace his drum patterns and hand movements look out of sync. Exhilarating to watch.
The cathedral provides an appropriate – or that is inappropriate? – backdrop for Ellis’ highly amusing mini-sermons. Introducing The Pier, also from Toward The Low Sun, he rants about Bon Jovi, praises the River Irwell and the nearby Victoria Bridge and constructs a story about a man who uses Facebook and an American Express Platinum card to buy everyone coffee and invite them back to his flat – only to throw them into the river. Performed live, The Pier reaches a different level: the contrast of intense darkness against the precise spotlights on the cathedral’s nave, coupled with the gradual build-up of energy from Ellis and White in particular, produces an absorbing spectacle that makes the record plain in comparison.
This is also the case with Sea Above, Sky Below from 1998′s Ocean Songs – on record a sedate yet beautiful six minutes, yet live it becomes Slint‘s Good Morning Captain-like, with Turner’s guitar the sedate and calming undercurrent to the more choppy violin. The set then reaches its peak during Some Summers They Drop Like Flies: like the Kubler-Ross model, the song progresses from denial and anger – Ellis screaming and collapsing onto the floor – before reaching a degree of acceptance and calm.
As the end approaches – Ellis doesn’t want to go over the Lord’s hour – he notices his giant shadow forming a messianic presence over a darkened stained glass window. Set closer Everything’s Fucked is renamed as Everything Is Not Quite How It Should Be: no swearing in a sacred place. Indeed, the venue, the symbolism, the music – all should oppose one another, yet they complement. What is paradoxical comes together to form something cohesive and memorable. Everything is not quite how it should be, but it works.