If you go
What: The Devil Makes Three, in concert.
When: 9 p.m. Jan. 31.
Where: McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W. Burnside St., Portland.
Cost: Sold out.
Information: 503-225-0047 or crystalballroompdx.com.
The Devil Makes Three has been together now for a decade, but guitarist and singer Pete Bernhard says he feels the group is only now starting to hit its stride.
"This is what we've done with our whole adult lives," he said in an early-January phone interview. "And I feel like right now, we're sort of the best we've ever been, which is really cool.
Bernhard said the group has an album it's proud of, referencing "I'm A Stranger Here," the album the trio released last fall. "Also, I think we're all just playing together on a much higher level than we ever have before and everybody is contributing more than they ever have."
The trio consists of Bernhard; banjo player and multi-instrumentalist Cooper McBean; and bassist Lucia Turino. What helped them step up their game, particularly with song writing and recording, was a decision to look outside the group for a key collaborator on "I'm a Stranger Here."
Up until then, The Devil Makes Three had been pretty much a do-it-yourself endeavor. But for "I'm A Stranger Here," the band brought on country singer-songwriter Buddy Miller to produce the album.
Bernhard, McBean and Turino had done well while keeping its albums in house. Since forming in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2001, the group had steadily improved as it developed its rollicking brand of acoustic music (which draws from bluegrass, country, jazz and pop) over the course of three studio albums -- a 2002 self-titled debut, "Longjohns, Boots, And A Belt" (2004) and "Do Wrong Right" (2009). The trio also has a pair of live releases: "A Little Bit Faster And A Little Bit Loose" (2006) and "Stomp And Smash (Live at the Mystic Theater)" (2011).
Along the way, the group slowly built a following that is now big enough to enable the group to headline theaters and large clubs.
Bernhard said he, McBean and Turino, though, decided it would take working with an outside producer to further raise their game in the studio.
"We already know what we can do ourselves," Bernhard said. "So it's kind of like there's not much mystery there. We did all we could do and we had reached our limitations there, and we wanted to try something new."
Enter Miller, an acclaimed artist in his own right, who has also been building an impressive resume of production projects. In particular, Miller had a big impact as a song editor and sounding board for the songs. Prior to setting up shop at Easy Eye Sound Studio, the Nashville facility owned by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, the group brought in completed demos for 20 songs, far more material than Bernhard had ever written for a The Devil Makes Three album.
Miller took a lead role in choosing the 10 songs that made "I'm A Stranger Here," and he helped refine the songs from their demo form.
"I think the thing Buddy did the most is he just edited heavily," Bernhard said. "He just said to us, 'Say, why is this part in the song?' Or, 'Why isn't there a break here?' Or, 'It feels like this harmony isn't right.' Or, 'Why don't we extend this part, because it's cool.' He got in there with a pair of scissors and said, 'This word is unnecessary. Take it out.'"
Bernhard said he extended that philosophy to the lyrics on the album.
"A lot of the songs are a lot more simple than a lot of the other songs I've written lyrically," he said.
Miller also helped The Devil Makes Three capture more of its live energy and sound on the new album.
What stands out most, though, is the songs, which are sharper and catchier than ever. "I'm A Stranger Here" has the kind of frisky bar-room bluegrass-flavored romps ("Dead Body Moving" and "Worse Or Better") and rustic ballads ("A Moment's Rest") that have long been staples of the group's music. But there are surprises as well.
"Hellelu" takes things in a twangy, old-time country direction, with great results. On "Forty Days," the group brings some New Orleans ragtime to the song with the help of the Preservation Hall Horns.
Then there's "Hand Back Down," the standout among an excellent collection of songs. In that song, the group slows its tempo and builds a spooky, but ultra-catchy, melody around the grooving, steady thump of a rhythm.
Now The Devil Makes Three is bringing its music to life on tour.
"We're playing almost all of the new record," Bernhard said. "Mixed in with that is some of our like favorite songs to play from all of the other records. I'd say we're playing something off of every record. But mostly I'd say it's heavily toward our new record. We're all just really excited about that stuff, so we're playing it a lot."