Country acts return to genre’s roots

The Devil Makes Three, pictured above, brought a country/folk combination to the Barrymore Wednesday night. With Joe Pug, the groups featured a return to country’s roots.

Image By: Betsy Osterberger

Mexican ritual masks beckoned me from the rafters as I entered the front door of the Barrymore Theater Wednesday night. The Devil Makes Three’s sold out performance, with opener Joe Pug, promised to be at least the most captivating display of humanity in Madison, if not the most enthralling musical performance I have witnessed this winter.

As I settled into my seat on the balcony, the twinkling stars in the ceiling above helped to set the mood for the acoustic, Americana music that was emanating from the stage. With Joe Pug playing guitar, along with his upright bass player and greasy electric guitarist, they poured out their hearts to the already near-full theater.

Through the grittiness of his trained vocals and revealing lyrics, Pug showed that country music isn’t dead; the legend of artists such as Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson will not fade into the darkness as the heart of country music fades with them. Joe Pug is evidence that what we hear on the radio is not all that remains of this important genre in American culture.

The lack of drums behind Joe Pug and his bandmates made his short set more entertaining than a typical country concert. By distancing himself from the upbeat and annoying boisterousness of modern country, Joe Pug became more relatable to followers of different musical genres. His singer/songwriter tendencies, and hints of blues, allowed Pug to entertain a fan base wider than that of the main act of the evening.

After Joe Pug graciously relinquished the stage, I decided to take a bit of a jaunt around the premises to read the venue’s mood. From full camouflage outfits, to a plethora of long-haired, Willie Nelson impersonators, the Barrymore’s clientele proved eclectic. It was a different cultural mix than a concert taking place in close proximity to the Capitol.

Feeling a bit out of place, I returned to my seat and allowed The Devil Makes Three to speak for themselves, instead of judging them by their fan base. This strategy resulted in less than favorable results. 

Three large banners were unveiled in the blackness before The Devil Makes Three took the stage and long, eerie guitar chords cut through the darkness. Other than a stuck curtain on the banner at the rear of the stage, the large eyes staring out from the decorations were sufficiently intriguing. In fact, the stage’s décor was the most intriguing part of their whole set.

With Pete Bernhard on guitar, Cooper McBean playing banjo and guitar–flaunting a greasy appearance mysteriously similar to Joe Pug’s electric guitarist– and Lucia Turino handling the upright bass, this band looked awfully similar to the opening act. Yet, this group had no wide appeal in mind right from the beginning. For a band that is marketed as a mix of different genres, some of which appeal to me very strongly, the only thing that crossed my mind during their entire set was that I must have been transported to hoedown being held in a local barn. The bouncing bass line that carried the fast paced banjo and guitar in song after song was about enough to make me go insane.

The musical highlight was Turino’s onstage presence. Not only were the songs featuring her vocals more palatable, but her bass playing style was effortless and entertaining. She seemed to be having more fun gyrating this large, wooden instrument than playing the music itself. Her bass slapping and maneuverability around the fingerboard was the most musically entertaining feature of this set. Otherwise, Bernhard’s yelling lyrics, McBean’s vocal likeness to Willie Nelson and the aggressive banjo shredding simply did not do it for me.

As I began my exit from the theater, the sound of the upright bass followed me all the way down the stairs from the balcony to the foyer. I took one last look at the camouflage pants and bouncing poser hillbillies and headed for the front entrance. The Mexican ritual masks bid me safe travels home as I took the first steps of my journey through the cold January evening.

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