It's Tuesday night and the juke joint's jumpin'. Chatter gets louder, laughter digs deeper, and the dancing involves more body parts as the night goes on. Everyone and no one is there to hear Devil In A Woodpile. The music neither binds rapt audiences to every word, nor deadens eardrums to conversation. It's music meant to party to, as it was decades ago in New Orleans, Clarksdale, St. Louis--and juke joints all around the South.
"I seem to gravitate toward the bouncy kind of uptempo stuff," says Rick "Cookin'" Sherry, Devil's lead singer, harmonica blower and washboard chugger. "Make people wanna slap their knee or somethin.'"
"This music came out when people weren't electrified," he continues, "(when) they danced all night and they had to play as loud as they could. But really it's just the beat. They got something to stomp to, that's the main thing."
Sherry was bitten by that sound when he first heard fingerpicking acoustic blues at an Old Town School of Folk Music benefit for Big Bill Broonzy. He soon joined a band that played old blues, The Bucktown Barbecue Boys, and there he met Tom V. Ray, who was moonlighting from his regular band, the Bottle Rockets.
Ray had been introduced to the juke joint style while living in New Orleans in 1990. He was busking there with his ukulele when he seized a chance to play upright bass with a more successful street outfit called Junior and the Big Mess Blues Band. His six-month stint with them included a European tour, and the singular experience of learning slap-bass technique from Willie Dixon.
When a key member of the Bucktown Boys moved to California, Sherry says, "We had a bunch of gigs lined up so we decided to do them as a two-piece with Tom playing bass and I'd play the harp, or I'd play the jug and Tom writes a lot of pieces on the ukulele. That was the original Devil In A Woodpile. The original tunes we have on the CD came out of that." (The band's self-titled CD was released last month on Chicago's Bloodshot label).
Ray's schedule often was tied up in other commitments, so at the same time, Sherry began performing duos with resonator fingerpicker and guitar teacher Paul K. "I liked Jimi Hendrix and all that stuff," says the guitarist, "but when I first heard (old blues) I thought 'wow' this is stuff I really want to get down as a guitar player. Probably, to my ears, it's the coolest stuff you can hear, certainly some of the most exciting guitar music."
Sherry began playing with one or both of his bandmates every Sunday night at Merle's Barbecue in Evanston. When Merle's gave up live music for a time, he and Ray undertook grueling nightly barhopping in search of a new, regular venue with just the right down-style ambiance. In due time, their quest led to a steady Tuesday night booking at The Hideout at 1354 W. Wabansia Avenue, a blue-collar bar by day and musicians' hangout by night. Since then, the band has also regained its Sunday night slot at Merle's.
For several months Ray has been trading off Devil's bass duties with Son Volt sound technician Gary Schepers, who plays tuba (a traditional bass instrument in New Orleans blues). Schepers also plays on several tracks of the band's new CD. The connection led to an offer to open a handful of midwestern dates for Son Volt in December. True to form, the band didn't use amplifiers; even in sold out venues for 1500 or so. Says Sherry, "The tuba sounds pretty cool bellowing through those rock clubs. Ooompha!" These shows gave Devil In A Woodpile a novel opportunity to introduce rock fans to its old-time raw and raunchy sound. "The audience dug the stuff," says Sherry. "We kinda did a circus buildup for the rock scene."
Ray is a Chicago-based freelance writer.