In September of 2016, I took a blind gamble on seeing The Devil Makes Three at the Corona Theatre. I’d made a big miscalculation and prepared myself for a classicist snooze, but instead, I had my face shred to bits by a kicking and stomping ruckus of a good time. I expected the same when I’d heard that they’d been booked to play the larger MTELUS, and made sure as hell to be back in the surprisingly rowdy crowd for the band’s return to Montreal. But what I didn’t expect to see was that despite another stellar performance from the group, a delightfully enthusiastic crowd can also quickly threaten to wear out its welcome.
The show got off to a toasty start under the supervision of ROEBUCK. Coming out of Norfolk, Virginia with a guitar and an upright bass, the husband-and-wife duo of Philip and Phoenix can sure get a party started with no-nonsense blues stomps and boogies like “She’s a Dollar, He’s a Dime” and “Lay Me Down”. But this duo is no one-trick pony. Instead, they sprinkle the fire-and-fury with bits of country sweetness (standout “Lucky One”), reflective ballads, and Dick Dale-style surf-shredding (complete with bass-lifting theatrics). Philip’s own extensive history as a one-man-band has clearly taught him how to get the most out of a minimalist setup, and the pair’s versatility and songwriting helped deliver a perfect Southern-fried buffet to get the crowd hungry for the main event.
One of my takeaways after seeing The Devil Makes Three in 2016 was how the Corona Theatre helped create an immediately warm and friendly party-vibe between the performers, showgoers, and occasional crowd-surfing wheelchair. That’s why I was really curious to see how that experience would translate to the much larger (and, post-renovation, slicker and colder) MTELUS. The tattoos and heavy-metal shirts that I had been so surprised to see at a bluegrass show came out yet again, packing the floor of the venue as the Santa Cruz five-piece opened with 2002’s “Chained to the Couch”. I was thrilled to figuratively and literally reconnect with old friends as Cooper McBean’s banjo soundtracked last year’s “Fingers to the Bone”, a tribute to Brown Bird tourmate and friend David Lamb, who passed away from leukaemia in 2014.
Even from all the way at the back of the venue, I was able to feel the floor stomp and shudder in time with Pete Bernhard’s “Pray for Rain” and the crowd’s booted feet. The sloppy good-time feeling I was looking to revisit was back in full-force throughout, complemented by a setlist full of bouncy live staples (“Spinning like a Top”, “Hallelu”) and time-tested covers (Robert Johnson’s “Drunken Hearted Man”, Steve Earle’s “Hometown Blues” – led beautifully by bassist Lucia Turino’s vocals). The Devil Makes Three play music that is timeless and just straight-up fun for everyone involved, effortlessly weaving country, blues, folk, and jazz. This potent mix was even enough to bring one gentleman near me onto his back, who then spent a good part of McBean’s bourbon tribute “Gracefully Facedown” wriggling around on the floor like a turtle stuck on his shell.
After being given moments of pure joy like this one, watching punk kids square dance without irony through the band’s new songs, and listening to Bernhard’s sincere words of encouragement for struggling musicians (“For Good Again”), it was kind of a bummer to see the unpredictable crowd take a turn for the worse. For every warm soul who does a cartwheel in front of me and reassuringly says “it’s okay” after I tell him that I don’t have any cocaine to repay him, there’s always a chance of having a bad apple out there. This time, it was in the form of the specimen who – right in the middle of the hollering “Stranger – threw an unidentified object directly at Bernhard’s face. To everyone’s credit, the band finished the song without missing a beat – and after a tense moment of reprimand, where a flabbergasted Bernhard politely asked if that could never happen again (“does that sound like a fair request?”), the consummate professionals finished the last few songs of the set with the same skill, dedication, and love for music that had marked the evening to that point.
Still, that kind of experience can leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth – and I have mountains of respect for the musicians who leave everything up on stage in order to create good times for their fans. But even though there was one bump in the road, my second Devil Makes Three concert delivered those good times in massive quantities. The venue and crowd may have been bigger, but the math checked out just fine anyway.
Review – Dan Corber
Photos – Kieron Yates
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