At the Pickathon Music Festival last August, The Devil Makes Three—a three-piece jug band-ragtime-hybrid band—had a crowd of sunburned festivalgoers dancing with boots a-fire on top of tree stumps and bails of hay in the deep woods of the forested Pendarvis farm southeast of Portland.
Granted, part of the charm of the performance was from the festival itself, seeing the band play under a stage made from woven tree branches, but it also was clear that the group, effortlessly splicing old-timey sound with modern demeanor, was as much a part of the magic as the setting.
Singer and guitarist Pete Bernhard—in signature form, with a neatly combed Ricky Ricardo haircut in muted grey, and the sleeves on his button-down rolled to the elbows—sent the crowd into a fit right from the start, as each song built upon itself with layered harmonies and rollicking instrumentals, neatly executed by upright-bassist Lucia Turino, and banjo player and lead guitarist Cooper McBean. Turino hammered away, driving the feet of the crowd with string percussion and McBean's quick-picking danced across Bernhard's chugging guitar. The trio oozed energy and precision.
There is a casual composure about the Santa Cruz-via-Vermont group. Formed in 2001, the trio has a rare consistency, grinding out a stream of phenomenal albums (three in the last five years) and revered performances on a relentless touring schedule.
2013's I'm a Stranger Here was recorded at Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach's studio in Nashville, and from the first haunting howls, Bernhard's heavily reverb-coated vocals set the ominous mood. The album ranges from the traditional bounce of devotee-gospel two-steps like "Hallelu," to the twangy strings and staggering horns of "Mr. Midnight," ending with the darkly scripted waltz in "Goodbye Old Friend."
"I am interested in both religion and death equally," said Bernhard in a recent interview with the Source. "I think there are good stories to be found in those themes and, therefore, I start digging. I think the fact the we are all going to die is largely overlooked in our culture and a little reminder every now and then couldn't hurt."
I'm a Stranger Here is a complete project, a fully developed story about coping with mortality, watching friends circle the drain and failing relationships. The vignettes—told though simple song structures—are fused into a hybrid musical genre, combining elements of rockabilly, gypsy, punk, country, bluegrass, polka and gospel.
"We are emulating our musical heroes, most of whom are long dead," explained Bernhard. "We have always loved old blues, folk and country music, and have tried to learn from the masters."
The Brothers Comatose, the opener for TDM3's Bend show, are alone worth the price of admission—a five-piece, string-heavy, grass-band with blazing fiddle riffs, weaving mandolin and dense harmonies from brothers Ben and Alex Morrison whose smooth baritones crackle over the band's warm country compositions.
The Devil Makes Three
9 pm. Thurs. Jan. 30
The Midtown Ballroom, 51 NW Greenwood Ave.
Tickets available at bendticket.com