The Devil Makes Three
January 31, 2015
The Fox Theater in Oakland
If we were worried the Devil Makes Three had lost the hunger that catapults indie musicians from folk-punk cult heroes to international rockstars, our concerns were laid to rest at the sold-out show on Saturday night at the Fox Theater. In the group's biggest headlining Bay Area performance to date, the good-time vibrations of DMT's early days as Santa Cruz's go-to party band with deep roots in the rural blues and gospel stomp of Blind Willie McTell were back. After a professional but lackluster showing at 2013's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, this was a triumphant return to form that left loyal fans reeling.
[jump] For two solid hours, the trio busted out dirty American roots tunes from their entire career (now entering its 15th year). Predictably, longtime favorites like “Old Number Seven” and “Bangor Mash” whipped the crowd into a sweaty froth. Epic performances of supercatchy songs from 2009's breakthrough album Do Wrong Right moved the audience as well. The pomo gospel anthem, “All Hail,” elicited appropriate ironic bowdowns to the gods of consumerism, while the bleary-dawn homage, “Gracefully Facedown,” brought out the overdrinking shouters in force. This was when the singalong on the floor drowned out the volume from the stage.
Titles from the latest album, I'm a Stranger Here, were arguably the most compelling. Produced by Americana old-schooler Buddy Miller in Nashville, this recording features some of the tightest arrangements and most memorable melodies of the group's storied songbook. “Forty Days,” “Dead Body Moving,” “Spinning Like a Top,” and of course the title track, which opened the show, hummed like master-wired circuitry. Crackling energy shot back and forth all night between the plucky banjo, guitar, and upright bass. When guest players MorganEve Swain (Blackbird's renowned cellist/fiddler) and her brother Spencer (dueling fiddler extraordinaire) joined the core trio, the group sound flooded with extra vivid color, like when the moon breaks through the clouds to illuminate a stormy night. The standout quintet piece was the twisted waltz, “Johnson Family.” It felt like the freak season of American Horror Story, all over-the-top carny magic with bourbon traces of something not quite right bubbling beneath the surface.
For the Devil Makes Three, you might call this religion. Complete with arena-rock lighting and the Masonic Eye of Providence glaring out at the audience from a great haunting backdrop, this show was a caterwaul-from-the-mountaintop, kick-up-yer-boots, spirit revival. For 120 minutes, all seemed right with the world. This was the Devil Makes Three at the height of their collective power, delivering music as aural healing, just as the blues forefathers would have it.