by Jane Roser
There’s an old Italian proverb that goes: “Of three things the devil makes a salad: advocate’s tongues, notaries’ fingers, and a third that shall be nameless.”
A decade after playing countless house parties and small bars, these Devils are nameless no more and are finally getting their due selling out huge venues, as well as snagging a prestigious 2014 Americana Awards nomination for Best Duo/Group. Their performance of “Hand Back Down” was been praised by NPR as a highlight of the show, although vocalist/guitarist Pete Bernhard has another favorite moment.
“I think my best memory was watching Taj Mahal practice his songs with Buddy Miller before the show,” Bernhard gushes.
Originally from Brattleboro, Vermont, Bernhard and Cooper McBean (guitar/banjo/bass/musical saw) bonded through their love of playing acoustic music. The two kept in touch after high school, eventually ending up in Santa Cruz, California where the Devil Makes Three took shape in 2001. They began by playing house concerts and small bars before touring their way up to large rock clubs and festivals (including Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits), sharing the bill with icons such as Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. Bassist Lucia Turino soon joined the duo, bringing a dancer’s sensibilities and rhythm to the trio, as well as infusing energy and pluck to get the audience rocking and rolling.
The Devil Makes Three’s fourth album, I’m A Stranger Here, released October 29th on New West Records, was inspired in part by their constant touring. “Stranger” illustrates the rootless nature of what it’s like hopping from town to town with no sense of community or the comforts of home (as a former Air Force brat who has lived in seven different states and countries before the age of 13, I can completely understand this crazy feeling). “Forty Days” is a song about the destructive force of nature, inspired by Hurricane Katrina and a flood that caused chaos in Brattleboro. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is featured on this eclectic gospel which is fun yet foreboding.
Produced by Buddy Miller and recorded at Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville, I’m A Stranger Here is a mixture of road songs and heartbreaking tunes. “We were able to work with a lot of great musicians outside of the group,” says Bernhard. “We used some new instrumentation, as well, like Buddy Miller on baritone guitar, some percussion and horns on a few tunes. It’s also the first album we worked on with a producer, so there were a lot of firsts on this record.”
The trio also just released a 7-inch vinyl single featuring the tracks “Dragging Chains” and “This Life”-songs that were not included on their current album. “We wanted the full length album to fit on a vinyl record without losing its quality,” Bernhard explains, “so we had to hold a few tracks back from the initial release. We loved both of the extra songs, but wanted the album to include just about ten songs and with these two it was just a little too long for vinyl. ‘This Life’ is a road tune written with the great Todd Snider about our first tour outside of California. Todd was nice enough to ask us to open his tour, but we were extremely unprepared for touring in the west Texas desert heat. Everything broke up on that trip, even our merch person was broken for a little while.”
Bernhard says that “Dragging Chains” is about how dreams can be made a reality, but not without a lot of spilt blood, sweat and some ginormous elephant worthy tears.
The Devil Makes Three will be performing at TLA January 11th and Bernhard promises a lot of exciting energy and possible Raiders of the Lost Ark-type face melting. “I really enjoy getting on stage and playing for people, the rest of the touring experience is just noise as far as I’m concerned. Philly has been a long-time supporter of ours from our first show at The Fire ’til now, but fans can expect to come to terms that they will no longer be in possession of their faces because we plan to completely melt them off,” Bernhard jokes, “we provide the most face melting of any three piece drummer-less trio in the known world.”
With a raw blend of rockabilly, bluegrass, old-time country and punkified blues, The Devil Makes Three refuse to settle on just one genre or era style of music, embracing it all and spitting it out in a glorious volcano of hellfire and brimstone. “We bend genres pretty hard,” Bernhard says. If you attend a Devils live show, be prepared to expect the unexpected and trust that what you think you know about old-time music is about to get turned around big time. After all, the devil was once an angel.