Bluegrass music can be something of a paradox. It is typified by pathos-ridden songs dragged from the depths of a broken heart, which are then performed at reckless speeds with a jaunty swagger and a grin. Hard times don’t seem so hard when you’re shouting at them it seems. This Tuesday, the Majestic Theatre featured two bands with enough collective bad-assery to cure just about anyone of their blues. Liberation through passionate playing and hard drinking was the order of the day as Joe Fletcher & the Wrong Reasons opened up for The Devil Makes Three in a sold-out show that made the entire building shake.
Hailing from Nashville, Tenn., Fletcher and his band delivered a slightly more subdued version of bluegrass with definite overtones of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Performing with his backing band gave Fletcher more room to express himself, and the inclusion of an electric guitar helped add another dimension to the music. Country licks and soaring guitar solos energized the rousing acoustic performance and the predominantly flannel and beard-clad crowd responded with energetic applause.
Taking the stage after a half-hour wait, the members of The Devil Makes Three cut a fine sight. Clad in a dark suit with a red tie and a touch of grey in his hair, frontman Peter Bernhard wouldn’t have looked out of place standing at a crossroads at midnight, ready to trade for your soul. Cooper McBean and Lucia Turino rounded out the dapper ensemble in a vest, bow tie and flowing black dress.
From the first track, The Devil Makes Three established a threshold of intensity and held it for the entire show, slowing down only for more measured numbers like “Graveyard” (which added shivery electric effects to syncopated fingerpicking) and “A Moment’s Rest.” The crowd was right with the band for the entire show, due mostly to the intensity and earnest dedication The Devil Makes Three brought to their performance. Seeing them live only reinforces the fact that the members of The Devil Makes Three are clearly doing what they love.
Crowd favorite “The Bullet,” with its instantly memorable chorus, came early, and jumbo-sized PBRs were hoisted in the air as the floor began to shake. About a criminal who sees no other way to survive, the song explains why The Devil Makes Three is such a potent force. Founded on steady fingerpicking, lively bass and a sad story, “The Bullet” nevertheless manages to elicit strong emotions from unassuming musicianship and simple lyrics. The well-lubricated crowd stayed shouting and stomping through the whole song, and I’m sure more than a few PBR drinkers’ arms were sore the next day. As the band would prove time and time again throughout the night, there is something about taking unhappiness and setting it to powerful music that feels so damn right.
Just from looking at the band you could tell when the music really was powerful. Tenor banjo player McBean stared hard at the ground, all of his energy in his fingers. Bernhard smiled and slashed at his guitar with renewed intensity, while upright bassist Turino shut her eyes, threw her head back and thrust her instrument at the crowd, as if making an offering of it to us. McBean switched off between his main instrument and an electric guitar several times during the show, allowing him and Bernhard to trade licks on songs like “Old Number 7″ and “Hallelu,” while Bernhard showed off an impressive collection of vintage guitars, including an antique resonator. Fiddler Spencer Swain also emerged for a few songs, adding another layer of lead instrumentation that amplified the bluegrass feel of the music.
The Devil Makes Three lived up to its reputation for playing on record exactly like they do live. Most songs were indistinguishable from their album counterparts, albeit with a few more furious banjo solos thrown in. A few songs really shone live however, notably “Aces and Twos,” a cut from their 2009 album Do Wrong Right. The opening riff started slow and built in speed and force until the crowd was hyped to a frenzy and the sound of pounding feet threatened to overwhelm the music. Helped by energetic slide guitar and a rousing chorus, the song was one of the most fun moments of the concert: where rhythm, lyrics and sheer passion came together to create a moment completely defined by a piece of music.