Out of the Country Closet: Pete Bernhard releases his inner hayseed on his second solo album.
For Pete's Sake
The Devil Makes Three's Pete Bernhard goes full honkytonk on his second solo release.
By Curtis Cartier
SEEMS LIKE only yesterday that little Petey Bernhard was sauntering around downtown Santa Cruz, guitar in hand, an 18-year-old beanpole fresh from Vermont ice cream country. Hard to believe the members of his band The Devil Makes Three, arguably Santa Cruz's best-known act of recent years, are coming up on 10 years together, and that Mr. Pete Bernhard is set to drop his second solo album, this time on a major label. It seems that with homegrown rock stars, you look away for a couple years and the next thing you know they're all grown up.
Luckily, Bernhard calls home from the road to check in every so often. And like a bathrobe-wrapped mother, up late with the porch light on and the phone within reach, Santa Cruz Weekly finally quit worrying itself sick last week when he called and gave an update on where he's been, what he's been doing and when on earth he's coming to visit.
"I'll be playing at the Crepe Place on [Sept.] 17th," says Bernhard in a cheerful lilt. "It feels like I haven't been back to Santa Cruz in a while. I always appreciate it more when I'm gone."
Bernhard's new album, Straight Line, out this week on Milan Records, is his first commercially distributed solo release and comes three years after his first effort, Things I Left Behind, which was, in his own words, "basically just me and a guitar" and included a very limited pressing. On his latest work, the singer and guitarist strikes a tone recognizable from his work with DM3. But "recognizable" is as strong an adjective as can be used, because Bernhard infuses it with a full Nashville feel, a bigger band and a candid sense of introspection. Still present is the old-timey twang in Bernhard's voice and the country wit in his lyrics, as on the opening track, "Orphan," when he sings: "A lot of people don't like me. Not my music, I mean personally." But gone are the rockabilly bop and the punk undertones of Devilish descent, leaving Bernhard exposed as the country singer he's always been with the honky-tonk band he's always wanted. He explains the difference between the two styles as his "using a different bag of tricks."
"On the solo album I play electric guitar, there's drums, bass, lap steel, organs, piano. It's a lot bigger sound than Devil Makes Three," he says. "Devil Makes Three is more of a bluegrass band. This is totally different."
Elsewhere on the album, Bernhard shows his rock roots, like on the choppy, dance-friendly anthem "Satisfied" and on the organ-soaked ballad "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold." At other points, like on the toe-tapping fourth track, "Mint Condition," strains of Lyle Lovett emerge as a Southern country swing number wraps around the singer's storytelling vocals. It's the title track, however, that stands out most, with its haunting steel guitar and choir-backed bridge. "I got my hands full walking in a straight line, remembering my own name," rasps out Bernhard.
The album, though by all accounts a fully realized work, came about almost by accident, Bernhard says. "I had all these songs and I wanted to record them eventually, but wasn't really planning on it," he says. "Then I had some friends over and we just kind of started playing and we started really liking these songs, you know--they sounded really great. We ended up recording it there at my house. I think there's a theme to it, I just don't know what it is."
Though Bernhard says he's excited to come back and play in the town that made him famous, he says it's a changed place from the one he knew in the early Oughts. Indie, punk and reggae bands ruled then, he says, which isn't too different from what rules now. Then, however, the now-trendy country/bluegrass/indie sound that The Devil Makes Three had begun experimenting with was an unknown quantity.
"When we started we were influenced by guys like Splitlip Rayfield, who no one had really heard of. Today there's a ton of bands like us--it's a serious scene," he says. "I think we maybe don't stick out in the crowd as much, but we get bigger crowds."
The Crepe Place, by its cozy nature, won't boast a big crowd like the ones that pack venues when DM3 rolls through. But the Weekly thinks that's just fine. It'll give us a chance to catch up with one of Santa Cruz's favorite sons before he runs off again.
PETE BERNHARD scoots boots on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 9pm at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz, along with Gavi Gallardo and Steven Griswold. Tickets are $8 at the door or at www.ticketweb.com.
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