True to their word, The Devil Makes Three appeared tonight in their usual trio guise, the drumming contribution of Sam Amidon, an honorary (and temporary) member of the band who added a rockier edge to their latest and very impressive sixth album, ‘Chains Are Broken’, sadly not present. Nevertheless tonight’s venue was close to its 700 capacity and the band clearly have a good London core of stalwart fans who can identify the songs from the briefest of intros.
Front man and lead vocalist Pete Bernhard and lead guitar and banjo maestro Cooper McBean have known each other since school days in Vermont and have been playing for almost as long with double bassist Lucia Torino who was also raised in that Northern State – proof that bona fide Americana does not all flow from the southern side of the Appalachians. The trio now have 16 years on the clock and the band pinpoints its starting point as Santa Cruz, California so they have done some miles in the process while the fruits of their labour are now a consistent presence at the sharp end of the USA folk and bluegrass charts. They certainly play like a band who have a long established tight musical rapport, without losing the vibrancy and freshness of their delivery.
Many of the songs (and they steam through 22 tonight in their ninety minute set) focus in some way on the darker side of life and have a crafted narrative thread to bring this out. There are references to “a picture of the Four Horsemen” and of “a jail closing down the doors on the world” while the recent single ‘Paint My Face’ seems to relate the thoughts of a dislocated narrator musing on an afterlife. They are light on audience between-songs-chat although Bernhard can be a witty presence as various YouTube videos evidence. As a singer, his voice reminds this reviewer of a youngish Dylan particularly when rattling through some of the wordier lyrics, and that is an alluring voice to bring to the show.
‘Pray For Rain’ seeks a downpour as the metaphorical climatic positive force to wash away the negativity in the world while in ‘Deep In My Heart’ the vice is at an individual level, “Deep in My Heart, I know I’m a terrible man,” there’s an acceptance that we live in a flawed world so, “If you gotta do wrong, do wrong right.” That said, they do major on rousing sing-along choruses which must help their accessibility and their appeal to the wide age range who have pitched up tonight. The stirring and catchy title song from ‘Chains Are Broken’ has a deep thick riff a la Jack White in ‘American Epic’ mode while on ‘Everybody Knows’ Turino takes lead vocals and takes us through a litany of deception, greed, cynicism and manipulation in its narrative with one imagining whether this might refer to USA HQ 2018. Slotted within their own songs they offered a Robert Johnson cover (told you about the dark side) of ‘Drunken Hearted Man’ with a countrified take on his deep blues and a cover of a gospel style Doc Watson track where the trio harmonised neatly, largely acapella for the first part. This overall melding of often dark, provocative lyrics via the upbeat and melodic style they adopt was summarised by Bernhard, “I feel better through the process. I hope you do too.” Absolutely!