Too raunchy to be bluegrass, too acoustic to be rock, too danceable for country, too much fun to be the blues — the Devil Makes Three is a band that resists easy description.
Truth be told, the trio seem to like being a little different, and a little difficult. When singer-guitarist Pete Bernhard was asked how the band chose their ominous name, he has a sly, untrustworthy answer.
“A friend came up with it when we were arguing about a name and we went with it,” Bernhard says. “We do not worship the devil, and if we do we lie about it in interviews.”
Or maybe that’s a joke.
In reality, nothing about their sound or their songs suggests Satanism, although one suspects the band does like a drink of firewater now and again. Their biggest hit to date is a wholehearted tribute to Jack Daniels called “Old Number Seven,” which is as raw and hearty as the whiskey itself, with a shout-out-the-chorus song that sounds as if it could have been written yesterday or 100 years ago. Asked how he came up with that timeless sound, Bernard shrugs.
“I honestly have no idea. I have always just tried to write songs like the songs I love and that’s how they end up sounding.”
Bernhard was raised in rural Vermont, but for some reason he cannot explain why he grew up with no interest in rock music, preferring older American styles, especially country blues. This brings to mind names like Robert Johnson, who famously made a deal with the devil at the crossroads in order to learn how to play the guitar and went on to inspire generations of long, complicated guitar solos.
But the Devil Makes Three’s music doesn’t have that kind of draggy seriousness. They feature a fast, get-up-and-dance sound, half-punk and half-bluegrass, with lots of good fingerpicking from Bernhard on the guitar, Cooper McBean on the banjo and plenty of string-slapping rhythm from Linda Turino on the stand-up bass.
It’s music that doesn’t take anything too seriously — especially itself.
“Thinking back to the old blues, ragtime and jug band music, it was party music, house music,” Bernhard says. “That was what we wanted to do. And there really aren’t any other bands doing that.”
Bernhard admits that sometimes the partying can get in the way of the music-making. “We try not to get so inebriated that we can no longer fingerpick, but it has happened a few times in the past,” he says.
The band has no drummer to cover up rhythmic flubs, but it doesn’t seem to need one — the music grooves effortlessly.
“No one has ever demanded drums as far as I can remember, and people dance without them, so it works out,” Bernhard says.
The band has released three records, one of them a live recording, and is on the road almost continuously throughout the west. They attracts an unusual crowd: bluegrass lovers who like good, old-fashioned fingerpicking, but also punks and party animals who like the drinking tunes, and even some Deadheads.
“Our bass player went to UC Santa Cruz briefly,” Bernard explains. “The rest of us are unlearned. I think the Grateful Dead types spin around in circles at our shows. It seems to help them cope.”
Every once in a while the band slows the music down and reveals another side to their sound, as on the slightly disturbing “River Deep,” with lyrics hinting at “a beast that will sink its teeth in you and carry you off to sleep,” backed by spooky whistling from a saw played by Cooper McBean. On “Graveyard,” the band hooks listeners with a tricky backbeat, and then draws us in with some intriguing lyrics: “Well, that’s me/Just a’drinking off this bottle/and a’drifting out to sea.”
Not all the drinking songs have happy endings, it seems, but that unsettling thought is soon put aside for great old songs like “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” swung with total ease and sung with great delight. This is the kind of music that makes you happy to be an American, born in a country that could invent such a good time, and ready to get up and dance to celebrate it.
The Devil Makes Three
April 6, 8 p.m.
at Zoey’s Café
451 E. Main St., Ventura, 652-1137
Advance tickets available at www.myspace.com/clubmercy