Under the strum of acoustic guitar, banjo and double bass, we hear a melody that sounds like dark ragtime. Then the vocal chorus lets loose with a respiratory wail that blows hard enough that you can almost see the rafters on the roof bend and groove to the music. Finally, the mood of antique bleak is completed by the mantra-like lyrics.
"This world, she's cold. This world is mean. My heart is stone. My hands are clean."
The song is called Stranger, the album it hails from is titled I'm a Stranger Here, and the band bringing all this bygone mischief to life is the California-by-way-of-Vermont trio known as The Devil Makes Three.
Saturday, the trio is heading to Cosmic Charlie's with some new-generation notions for some deliciously vintage-sounding music.
"I think a lot of artists tend to stick to the script," says Devil Makes Three lyricist, guitarist and vocalist Pete Bernhard. "I don't like to do that at all. I like to explore topics people don't like to talk about. I think playing in this style sort of allows you to do that in some ways, which is really cool. It's almost like people don't expect it. They don't expect the energy of the live show. They don't expect the lyrical content, to tell the truth. I think that's just a modern thing, though.
"Traditionally, folk music and bluegrass and blues has always had a radical element in the lyrical content. Today, it seems like it sort of didn't because of the way the music has changed. When you think of something like Mind Your Own Business by Hank Williams, ... that was a pretty big deal at the time. There is a lot of politics in old Hank Williams songs and old Leadbelly songs. There is a lot of heartbreak. There are a lot of tales of death and dishonor. I think that stuff is really great. That's some of the real meat-and-potatoes folk music. But it's still really traditional."
Raised in Vermont, Bernhard, banjoist and guitarist Cooper McBean and bassist Lucia Turino formed The Devil Makes Three in 2002 in Santa Cruz, Calif.
"We all had music that we loved," Bernhard says. "There was a lot of roots music, but there was also punk music, too. We were listening to Django Reinhardt, Hank Williams, Howlin Wolf, jug band music, stuff like that. We were just trying to learn it all. But in doing so, we sort of combined it all into one group. So everything just kind of happened pretty organically and pretty quickly."
A series of indie recordings led to sessions for I'm a Stranger Here and the trio's first opportunity to record with a record producer. The band landed a champion, too: guitarist, songwriter and country/Americana scholar Buddy Miller.
"A lot of people would have said, 'It's too intimidating to work with a producer when you've never worked with one before,'" Bernhard says. "It wasn't at all. Buddy was just like a fourth member of the band. He sat in with us and played and had a lot of good ideas. He was just really easy to work with. We also all admire his musical taste, because he's like an encyclopedia of roots-music knowledge. We just trusted in his vision for the album. It was like, 'Well, we pretty much love the music he loves, so it seems like we're going to be all right here.'"
A solid year of touring followed Stranger's 2013 release, including a summer-long stretch as opening act for a tour co-headlined by Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss.
"Willie was great; Alison was great," Bernhard says. "We had a blast out there. It was very different from our normal audience, but it was really great. I think we made a good impression."