On a summer morning, with the sun rising just over the tree tops kindly lining Milwaukee’s streets, I still had Pay the Devil’s album in my cd player from the night before. I listened to it a couple of times prior, trying to get used to not seeing the notes and melodies fly off their instruments live; still absorbing those little pieces genius in songs that you miss in a performance.
I left the album inadvertently cued to Johnny, a down beat march adding a somber rolling snare and fiddle to the banjo and guitar mainstays. With the reddish blues engulfing everything near the horizon, Ivan Eisenberg’s voice humbly laments, projecting a first person account from the Antebellum past,
“Born in an coal mine in the Appalachian hillside in western Pennsylvania north of the Dixie line… I never hurt no one just minding business working my land and drinking my wine // Until one day a man came walking, down the roadside a rifle in his hand // He said old Abe Lincoln, he needs a small favor he needs the help of every strong man…
In a extraordinarily rare and powerful way, in that moment, I saw history with someone else’s eyes, a forgotten man’s story, buried under the lines of text penned by history’s learned hands and obscured by rhetoric of spokespeople of the oppressed and bigots alike; sung for years with frosted breath, up to this unsung and unspoken sesquicentennial of the US Civil War. I welled up and nearly cried.
Milwaukee’s music strata has a ton of composite minerals, and it’s blues/folk/bluegrass scene lays underneath, the bedrock of it all. Pay the Devil: Ivan, Ivan, Matt and Jeremy, a band of scrappy banjo picking, washboard raking, mandolin strumming, guitar riffing common law siblings gives this firmament it’s strength. Now and then, they add the gold that Johanna Rose brings to all her collaborations, and glasses clank, knees rock and the times ring loverly.
A cacophonous symphony for the strange folk when they play live, Pay the Devil recently released their debut LP Wrong Side of the River, a 13 track doozie that rambles and presses over everyday Milwaukee life with a rolling pin, and shaves off some good old folk tales with at a straight razor.
Pay the Devil has distilled on the scene for a few years now and Wrong Side of the River is a welcome project capturing a moment in time that’s worth riding till the carriage breaks. An essential piece of Milwaukee’s musical stitching, this album is one 2015 best projects and well worth nabbing.