With a down-home sound and a good-time attitude, the Devil Makes Three feels like the buddies you drink with deep into the night, only to pick up where you left off the next afternoon until you're all face-down in the gutter again. It's dirty business, but as the trio puts it on the title track of last year's third studio album, Do Wrong Right, "If you're gonna do wrong, buddy, do wrong right."
Fans of such debauchery flock to Devil Makes Three shows like flies to last night's vomit. In this way, the group is kindred to psychobilly freakmaster Reverend Horton Heat and punk-country rock stars the Supersuckers. The Santa Cruz band is less ferocious than its moshpit cousins, though. A mostly acoustic string combo, steeped in the American roots tradition popularized a decade ago on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, they're hillbilly beach bums, equal parts juke-joint blues and Appalachian bluegrass with an overdose of rock 'n' roll hedonism.
Funny thing is, the members of the Devil Makes Three ain't as stoopid-wild as you might expect. While the music is fairly simple, with often the same three or four chords played repeatedly, the arrangements are well-balanced. Songs interweave finger-picking and hard-strumming styles, break up the tempos to build energy, vary the instrumental timbre, and fuel audience sing-alongs with catchy choruses, three-way harmonies, and round-robin phrasing. Lyrically, main songwriter Pete Bernhard strives for storytelling folksiness and street-poet punch. He blends archetypal and contemporary imagery to mark his tunes with authenticity and originality.
On "For Good Again," an autobiographical reminiscence of his early musicmaking (with the requisite hard living: drinking, pill-popping, puking, drug-dealing), Bernhard talk-sings in the old-school way, honoring a respectable line of folk singers like the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan. The circus waltz "Johnson Family" recalls the hoboing minstrels of yesteryear, riding the rails from town to town until the money is long gone and the only way out is suicide. "Poison Tree" addresses the fear tactics of government propaganda, though thankfully without the didacticism of, say, Steve Earle or Billy Bragg.
Perhaps the most poignant (and most witty) track on Do Wrong Right is the bouncy opening number, "All Hail," which tells of capitalism's imminent demise with its ironic chorus: "All hail, all hail to the greatest of sales/Everything you've got's got to be sold." The narrative draws together a crack mama, Adolf Hitler, Jesse James, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and superstore sales pitches to poke a sharp stick at doped-up consumer culture: "Now you're duller than a singing saw playing 'Uncomfortably Numb.'"
While the Devil Makes Three's songwriting is smart, it's far from elitist. After all, the band's fans don't pack shows for diatribes on societal ills or political corruption; they come to drink and dance and raise a ruckus. In fact, it's not uncommon for audience members to get out of hand. In an interview, Bernhard reflected on a New Orleans gig years ago when a rowdy drunk bulldozed his way to the front, carrying the capacity crowd with him. Mikes toppled to the floor and bassist Lucia Turino was knocked off the stage, her instrument smashed against the wall. Bernhard and fellow string-slinger Cooper McBean had to physically restrain her from retaliating.
Such is the night life of the Devil Makes Three. The band members are our catalyst for getting bent in a world that aims to keep us straight. Buy them a drink and bring on the mayhem.