Three kinds of Americana were on display on a scorching Friday night at Red Rocks: the light, the dark and the near-perfect in-between.
Santa Cruz’s nefarious-but-accessible Devil Makes Three – expanding its lineup from a trio to a quintet – packed America’s greatest venue, bringing along the jammy, funky, quirky Wood Brothers and the gothic folk punk of Murder by Death.
Starting the evening early, at 7 p.m., to a packed crowd, Murder by Death focused on tunes from its deep, powerful 2012 breakthrough Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon and the sprightly, wholehearted 2015 followup, Big Dark Love. The 45-minute set juxtaposed rock-and-roll electric guitar, drums and bass with thoughtful, poetic, wicked lyrics, Sarah Balliet’s elegant, intricate cello and David Fountain’s jaw-dropping multi-instrumental prowess, which he displayed for the big Red Rocks crowd. That crowd included Fountain's one-year-old daughter, who was attending her first-ever concert.
As ever, Murder by Death’s passionate fans — often tattooed and known affectionately as the Whiskey Crew — sang along with fervor to every line and wondered why the Indiana-bred act, which has created a legendary Colorado niche by playing multiple nights at the Stanley Hotel the last five years, wasn’t headlining.
According to Adam Turla, Murder by Death just finished recording a new album and will be back later this year to play the Ogden and Washington’s.
While Murder by Death exploded with fire and brimstone several times during its set on rockers like “The Curse of Elkhart” and “Brother” and also stripped things down to only cello, acoustic guitar and vocals on the pensive death ballad “No Oath, No Spell,” the Wood Brothers emerged around sunset and took things in another direction, playfully bopping around to optimistic, poppy Americana with a jam-band groove behind it.
Just after I murmured a lighthearted jab at the Wood Brothers for excelling at that kind of music I can often respect and admire but not find affinity with — music that is “nice” — I started noticing the trio’s talented, lanky vocalist-guitarist Oliver Wood singing the words “nice” and “beautiful” in a few songs. I had to laugh. And genuine smiles are a big part of the Wood Brothers’ appeal: This is American roots music with one of the world’s best bassists (Chris Wood of Medeski, Martin and Wood), a romping New Orleans charm and a lot of levity.
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That wonderful levity was on display when Oliver Wood pointed at the spot in the Red Rocks seats where as a kid he watched Tom Petty play. Then Wood launched into a creative, effective cover of Petty’s “You Wreck Me.”
In the hot, late-May Friday night darkness, The Devil Makes Three emerged with the tangible, extraordinary skill of bringing together the light and the dark, and thus seemingly the entire crowd, which instantly found a home in the gravity of the group's welcoming-but-wicked Americana. Much more old-timey than I’d imagined from previous recordings, Pete Barnhard and company dazzled, wearing all black, reveling Red Rocks with banjo, fiddle, stand-up bass, acoustic guitar and drums behind Barnhard’s evil but pleasant and welcoming tales of drink and desire.
Barnhard is the spittin’ image of Boulder’s own Bob Schmidt of Flogging Molly and also has a vocal doppleganger in Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Earley. On “Gracefully Facedown,” Barnhard sang of “having a hard time walking a straight line” while “drinking bottom-shelf whiskey,” and “Old Number 7,” the Devil Makes Three’s most famous song, found the Red Rocks crowd “drinking in heaven." But the quintet isn’t a one-trick pony that limits itself to alcoholic sing-alongs.
At its best, evidenced last night on tunes such as “Hallelu,” The Devil Makes Three is spooky in the magical Patsy Cline sense while also a smidgen tongue-in-cheek spiritual (“Jesus is coming/He must be walking, he sure ain't running/Who can blame him, look how we done him"). For a band that’s been releasing albums for sixteen years, the members of The Devil Makes Three remarkably still look like they thoroughly enjoy making music with each other, bringing audiences of thousands to their feet with soul-filling songs such as “Graveyard” that are simultaneously revelatory, pensive and — thankfully — never too nice.