When the Devil Makes Three rips into a tune, it tears it apart with a sweat-drenched energy that jerks people out of their seats and makes drinks jitter across the table and crash to the floor. The trio may play acoustic instruments, but its post-punk frenzy of ragtime, folk, blues, and primitive country generates enough electricity to solder the change in your pants into a smoking lump.
"They get the crowd up and stomping from the first note," says the Great American Music Hall's Leah Matanky, an early believer who's been booking the band since it burst onto the scene in 2001 (it appears at the SF venue in July after playing the Starry Plough this week). "They draw unusually large crowds for a local band; a diverse audience from young rockers to older roots music fans as well as bluegrass lovers. They play hard and have the crowd up and cheering from the first note. We have trouble emptying the club after they play. The fans keep stomping and demanding more and more encores."
The photo inside the band's latest album, Longjohns, Boots, and a Belt makes the trio of Pete Bernhard (guitar) Cooper McBean (guitar, tenor banjo), and Lucia Turino (stand-up bass) look like dustbowl refugees who just returned from a thrift-store shopping spree. The look is true to their jumpy, syncopated ragtime sound, but it took the band's main songwriters Bernhard and McBean years to arrive at their current style.
"I grew up in Brattleboro, a little town in Vermont," Bernhard recalls. "Everyone in my family played guitar; my dad, my uncle and aunt. My father had a huge record collection and played me Lightnin' Hopkins before I was even in grammar school. I met Cooper in eighth grade and we played loud punk music together, not in a band, just messing around."
"I grew up around acoustic music," McBean adds. "I hated it. But after playing in a bunch of punk bands, I started sneaking my parents' records up to my room and fell in love with old country music and the blues."
The two bounced around the country separately before reconnecting in Olympia, Washington. "My mom was in a swing band in the '70s," McBean says. "I got into the old swing of Bob Wills and the new swing of Asleep at the Wheel. I thought I'd apply the punk energy I'd picked up to styles that ordinarily don't carry it."
The Devil Makes Three honed its act by jumping into a van and playing every venue it could find. "We play music that makes people get rowdy," Bernhard says. "The fact that we play acoustic instruments didn't appeal to people at first. Our first tour was house concerts or opening shows for punk bands, which helped hone our chops." The band also did a short tour of France, which was somewhat anticlimactic. "We played at a festival to five thousand people and only sold one CD after the show," Bernhard says ruefully.
Unfortunately, punk music can lock bass players into pretty rigid patterns, and the Devil Makes Three cycled through several before it found someone willing to keep it simple. "Our van broke down in Santa Cruz and the bassman we had quit," McBean says. "Lucia had seen us play and said she'd be in the band if we taught her how to play bass, so we did."
"In less than a year she was playing way beyond what we taught her," Bernhard says. "We couldn't do without her."
Now tunes are credited to the band and everyone contributes to the final product. "We're all headstrong and opinionated," McBean says. "There's tug of war about how a song's going to go. The final version is pretty refined from its original form."
These days the three are mixing down a soon-to-be-released live album and playing as many gigs as they can squeeze onto the calendar. "We're a DIY outfit," Bernhard concludes. "We book the shows, run a label, everything. It has its ups and downs, but we always know what we're doing and we control our own destiny."
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