Dirty saints on tour

Ed Kuepper (left) and Jim White are currently staging a national tour. Photo: Anna White.

Review: Ed Keupper with Jim White, Blue Mountains Theatre, Springwood – Saturday, 12 June, 2021.

After mixing more than a century’s worth of combined musical experience into a new tour project, Ed Kuepper (The Saints) and Jim White (Dirty Three) excited a Blue Mountains audience on Saturday. The Sentinel’s Corin Shearston was there.

“Everything’s changed since last year,” Ed Kuepper stated, while onstage with one of his guitars at the Blue Mountains Theatre in Springwood. He paused to survey the full house of rock aficionados, fellow musicians and a few kids, as bright stage lights made him squint through glasses nestled over his white beard. To his right sat drummer Jim White, a wild-haired professor of percussion with an equally impressive band CV. 

Within their new duo format, Ed and Jim’s shared sensibilities resulted in neither musician overshadowing the other. They balanced their actions tastefully, extracting depth, size and beauty out of a rugged sonic landscape built from seismic guitar tones and pounding drums that were as hypnotic as they were surprising.

The live setup for Ed Kuepper with Jim White at the Blue Mountains Theatre, June 12th 2021. Photo: Corin Shearston.

As older Aussies on either side of the threshold of 60, both men have captivated global audiences for decades whilst rehearsing, recording and touring in respective projects such as The Saints, the Dirty Three, Laughing Clowns, Xylouris White and The Aints.

Proving Ed’s statement as to how much things have changed, the pair have never played live together until this year. They’re now on a national tour, which started on 25 May and ends on 10 July. They were brought together by the pandemic, after both finding themselves with no gigs to play and the time to consider new possibilities. Kuepper got in touch and White jumped at the chance. The tour was booked before the pair were able to play together, with rehearsals delayed by further restrictions. When they finally got into the same room, Ed and Jim’s playing clicked immediately. 

Ed Kuepper (left) with Jim White. Photo: edkuepper.com.

Decades prior, they first met each other in the mid-1990s, at a show at Melbourne’s Prince Of Wales pub. Kuepper was headlining that night, supported by a rising instrumental trio called the Dirty Three, with White on drums, who he was quickly captivated by. Rounding out the group were guitarist Mick Turner and on violin, Warren Ellis – a member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds since 1994. 

In 1994, two years after their first gig, the Dirty Three also played support to the Beastie Boys and Pavement, and have since toured with the likes of Sonic Youth, The Pogues, PJ Harvey and Cat Power (with White also collaborating on studio recordings with both female artists).

The Dirty Three perform at MusicfestNW in Portland, Oregon in 2009. L-R: Warren Ellis, Jim White, Mick Turner. Photo: Wikipedia.

Australian rock music historian Ian McFarlane once described the sound of the Dirty Three as “rumbling”, “dynamic”, and “open-ended”. These same musical qualities were displayed on Saturday at the Blue Mountains Theatre, against a stark backdrop which served as a blank canvas for the intense sonic vibrations that were conjured confidently and felt molecularly. If one was forced to label this hybrid style, you could call it ‘art rock’; a peculiar atmosphere drenched with guitar reverb and distortion under Ed’s richly deep voice.

Through two full hours and an encore, with no interval, Ed and Jim reinterpreted 45 years of Kuepper’s back catalogue. This was achieved with a white Stratocaster that was used for a majority of the show, and a toolkit of mallets, sticks and brushes upon a beautifully tuned drum kit. Engaged in the joy of spontaneous creation, Jim grabbed and discarded his apparatus like a painter rapidly choosing brushes for the completion of a work. While working through the setlist, Jim’s dancing arms swung widely over his instrument, flailing to purposefully drop and slide sticks over skins and cymbals while honouring the power of momentary pauses. 

Ed certainly has an impressive back catalogue to build a setlist from. Firstly, he co-founded The Saints in 1973, a revered rock group that propelled blazing punk out of the Brisbane suburbs onto national TV as the first non-US band to release a punk album. After supporting AC/DC in 1976, the same year that the Sex Pistols released ‘Anarchy In The UK’, The Saints’ debut single ‘I’m Stranded’ was reissued by EMI and reached the UK’s Top 100 Singles Chart. The album of the same name was released in 1977, displaying a straightforward ‘buzzsaw guitar’ style akin to the Ramones. 

The Saints perform in 1976. L-R: Chris Bailey, Ed Kuepper, Ivor Hay, Kim Bradshaw.
Photo: Jennifer Fay Gow/fromthearchives.org.

Amidst the revolutionary landscape of punk in Britain, EMI pressured The Saints to lose their downbeat look by remodelling themselves as a typical punk band with ripped clothes and spiky hair. While generally being ignored by the mainstream Australian press, The Saints resisted the pressure of these aesthetics and went on to release two more albums with Ed before he initially departed in 1979. He went on to form Laughing Clowns later that year, before maintaining a solo career and forming The Aints, their band name being a partial jab at Saints singer Chris Bailey. 

‘I’m Stranded’ was listed as one of the Top 30 Australian Songs Of All Time in May 2001 by the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA), and The Saints were inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in the September of the same year. Ed performed three more live stints with Saints members in 2007, 2009 and 2010. 

Apart from a few choice band t-shirts and slightly edgy characters, the sophisticated patrons of the Blue Mountains Theatre were utterly different to the rowdy crowds that first championed The Saints in the late ’70s. Rather, these attendees were stylish culture lovers there to savour a live display of alternative music, entering into avenues rich with sounds from paths less-travelled. They were not disappointed. 

Jim White (left) and Ed Kuepper perform at the Blue Mountains Theatre on 12 June, 2021. Photo: Corin Shearston.
Tour dates for Ed Kuepper with Jim White, Australia, 2021.
Photo: Corin Shearston

Apart from Ed and Jim showing deep mutual respect for each other, and their musical history, one artist to praise both The Saints and the Dirty Three is Nick Cave. Speaking about The Saints, Cave is on record saying: “They were just always so much better than everybody else … it was extraordinary to go and see a band that was so anarchic and violent.” Speaking of the latter, he stated: “[The] Dirty Three are my favourite live band … when I watch them, they ignite something.” 

This same creative fire kept us warm at the Blue Mountains Theatre. “[It’s been] 18 months since I’ve been in this general neck of the woods”, Ed revealed onstage, “so it’s good to be back on the road.” Upon receiving another round of rapturous applause for their bold and fluid aural experiments (which Ed describes as ‘lean’), he humbly stated, “Thank Jim, not myself, he’s the one who made this happen.”

To coincide with his national tour, Ed Kuepper has announced three limited-release compilations on vinyl, spanning his solo career, Laughing Clowns and The Aints. They are available for purchase through the online store on his website, along with other CDs, cassettes, t-shirts and stickers. 

Corin Shearston is the Youth Editor of the Sydney Sentinel.