Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Devil Makes Three - The Rainbow, Birmingham Tuesday 24th March 2015

The genre conundrum surfaced last night at Birmingham’s Rainbow venue. Pete Bernhard, the frontman of The Devil Makes Three, vociferously proclaimed that they are not an American country band. This is a concept in line with the promoters who brought them to Birmingham and the earthy indie rock venue hosting them in a location where the city centre spills into the less salubrious inner city suburbs. However you only have to spend a couple of moments observing and listening to this trio to discover that they have a far greater synergy with the ideals of country music than much of the modern output so decried by Bernhard. What The Devil Makes Three do succeed at is delivering a near non-stop procession of high tempo acoustic roots music courtesy of banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass in the true tradition of the pioneers of country music and all the offspring strands.

This band, which is a trio at core but intermittently expanded to a four and five-piece during the show with the active participation of the techies, has been active in the US for well over a decade. Maybe the time was perceived right to expand their horizons and while this was certainly a debut Birmingham date, it is assumed an inaugural visit to the UK as well. Pete and his two colleagues, Cooper McBean (banjo/guitar) and Lucia Turino (bass), didn’t disguise the fun they were having on tour and those present enthusiastically reciprocated their affection.

The most striking way to describe the onstage sound mayhem is to liken the band to a stripped down version of the Old Crow Medicine Show, an act they have opened for in the US. Traditional roots music is a general label to attach to The Devil Makes Three with shades of bluegrass, rockabilly, blues and classic country spilling out of every note and song played. The bunch of songs selected to fill a ninety minute long set spanned the band’s four album recording-career to-date with a slight bias to 2013’s I’M A STRANGER HERE. From this, their most recent release, the standout songs energising the set included ‘Forty Days’, ‘Stranger’, ‘Spinning Like a Top’ and ‘Hallelu’. In fact there was a reassuring consistency about the songs stretching back to their 2002 self-titled debut album which launched the career of a band formed in Santa Cruz, California but originally from the far north eastern state of Vermont. A topic of amusement to the band has been much comment on why a group of musicians from New England play music more akin with the southern states. Bernhard counters this by implying ‘we’re just a collection of hippies and punks playing music we like’.

Cooper McBean brings a lot of traditional country influence to the band with much admiration for Hank Williams and Bob Wills, perhaps punks themselves in their day. He also added a vocal contribution in the form of a Roger Miller song and his constant switching between banjo and guitar kept the sound fresh. Another cover introduced by Bernhard was Elvis Costello’s ‘Lip Service’, a song originating in 1978 when it’s architect was spearheading a post-punk new wave movement and thus giving a good indication of The Devil Makes Three’s approach to music making. There is definitely a raw indie feel to their sound which explains adulation in the world of Americana music as opposed to the more polished mainstream.

The band’s awareness in the UK grew last year via a session on Bob Harris Country and a big push with this tour and further promotion will help them build on this momentum. Maybe a dual attack on markets will help as they combine well the raw vibrant sound of indie rock and a passion for real country. Regardless of labelling, getting acquainted with The Devil Makes Three is highly desirable either on record or more pertinently catching one of their live shows. The aura, energy and technique of this band need to be captured and diverted to influencing other sectors. 

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