[7 December 2011]
The Devil Makes Three has been around for almost a decade now, and they’ve developed a grassroots following with their brand of down-home Americana. Stomp and Smash is their second live release, and it draws from all three of the band’s studio albums yet throws in a pair of new songs. This is one of those occasional live albums that actually succeeds in capturing the energy of a band in concert. Recorded over two nights in front of a rowdy crowd in Petaluma, California, Stomp and Smash finds the Devil Makes Three clearly enjoying themselves and playing with intensity. The recording by Kark Derfler is crisp and clear, putting Pete Bernhard’s vocals out front but letting all the instruments be heard.
There’s a bluesy, boozy quality to the Devil Makes Three’s music that pretty much guarantees a strong audience response, and that comes through on Stomp and Smash through a low buzz of crowd noise that runs through the whole disc. For many bands, the cheering, hoots, and hollers might be a distraction on a live album, but in this case it fits perfectly. Since this is my first experience with the band, I can’t comment on the tracklisting in terms of what didn’t make the cut, but what is here is very good. “For Good Again” is a strong opener, as Bernhard tells the tale of how he ended up in the band. Lyrics about the drinking and drugs of small town life could come from any alt-country or Springsteen-influenced indie-rock band, but Bernhard puts his own distinctive stamp on the tale. You don’t expect a country stomper to include lines like “Our drummer couldn’t figure out whether he was straight or he was gay,” and “You’ll never understand the things my friend Aaron put us through / He had this Powerpoint presentation about this girl he wanted to do.” Bernhard’s willingness to be unconventional with his lyrics also pays off in the new song “They Call That Religion,” which directly takes on corrupt religious figures including Ted Haggard and L. Ron Hubbard. The chorus, “They call that religion / But you know he’s going to Hell when he dies” is both blunt and hilarious.
While the trio sometimes bucks string band conventions, one they embrace is the lack of a drummer. Much of their material is plenty percussive, with bassist Lucia Turino on the downbeats and Bernhard’s guitar on the upbeats. This leaves Cooper McBean’s banjo or guitar to handle a song’s main riffs and Bernhard’s vocals to fill in the melody, a task which both men handle adeptly. Fiddler Andy Lentz is also on hand for much of Stomp and Smash, and he adds a lot of color to the jig-like “Black Irish” and the jaunty “Do Wrong Right”. His solos on slower tracks like fan favorite “Old Number Seven” and the creepy “Graveyard” made me wonder if the band shouldn’t consider hiring him as a full-time member. Since Lentz already has gigs in at least three other bands, that probably won’t be happening.
A lot of bands say things like, “Our studio albums don’t really do us justice. You need to come see us live to get it.” At this point it’s probably safe to consider it a cliché. And yes, Bernhard is guilty of this, too, telling No Depression, “The idea came together when we played a show in Nashville awhile back and a friend told us that our records didn’t capture the energy of the live show, and we all agreed.” I haven’t heard the band’s studio albums, but Stomp and Smash definitely captures a compelling energy that a lot of live recordings are missing. It makes me want to go see them play live, which, I think, is exactly the point.