As a name for a blues combo HowellDevine is almost too perfectly evocative, with its intimations of primal release and sacred ritual. But guitarist Joshua Howell and drummer Pete Devine came by their moniker, and their irresistible groove-drenched sound, with absolute integrity.
Anchored by veteran bassist Joe Kyle Jr., who proudly lists Martin Denny, Al Kooper, and Pinetop Perkins among the many bandleaders who’ve hired him, HowellDevine has been one of Bay Area’s busiest blues bands since Arhoolie released the trio’s second album in 2013, Jumps, Boogies & Wobbles.
It was the first new blues session released by Chris Strachwitz and his storied East Bay roots label in almost three decades, and in an interview at the time he explained why he was smitten with their sound.
The first time he heard them “if I had been blind I’d have thought I was in some little Mississippi beer joint in 1940,” said Strachwitz, then 82. “I was really taken by their mastery of the blues. Joshua isn’t trying to sound like a black guy…And he was accompanied by this incredible dude Pete Devine on washboard, jug and drums. The rhythm and syncopation fit to perfection.”
HowellDevine released an acclaimed follow up on Arhoolie in 2014, Modern Sounds of Ancient Juju, that illustrated even more vividly why the band caught the ear of Strachwitz, who recorded classic albums by Delta blues legends Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. The trio celebrates the release of a new album, Howl, Wednesday at Freight & Salvage, a project they figured would come out on Arhoolie too (I should mention here that I wrote the album’s brief liner notes). But since Smithsonian Folkways acquired Strachwitz’s vast treasure-laden archives last year, the label is no longer putting out new music.
The band reached out to veteran blues pianist Jim Pugh’s non-profit label Little Village Foundation, which has put out a series of excellent roots music albums over the past two years. “He’s doing some great things, releasing some great music,” Devine says. “His whole concept of a non-profit label supported by music lovers is pretty amazing.”
The new album captures the band’s expanding sound, as HowellDevine digs into tunes by the Meters and the supremely grooving jazz guitarist Grant Green. Where HowellDevine’s first releases paid reverent homage to the country blues tradition by putting a personal stamp on vintage material, Howl finds the trio exploring more contemporary sounds.
“With time, we’ve naturally branched out a bit,” Devine says. “With our live shows Joe Kyle picks up electric bass sometimes and we focus more on grooves and slip into some long jams, a trance, vortex situation that’s really fun to dance to. It’s not typical blues you hear in a blues bar these days. We get a lot of kids and people in their 20s.”
The Berkeley acoustic blues duo of Pete Madsen and vocalist/guitarist Celeste Kopel open Wednesday’s concert with a brief set. In a Freight first that also marks new territory for HowellDevine, the concert features George Holden’s Liquid Show & Live Cinema. Holden, who helped pioneer the art form at Fillmore West in the late 1960s, “is going to incorporate videos of the band and other imagery,” Devine says. “He’s going to mix it up. He’s a super sweet guy, and if this goes well we might do start doing some more shows with him.”
With Howell on slide guitar, harmonica, and urgent yet laid back vocal, and the loose but lockstep rhythm section of Kyle on bass and Devine on stripped-down drum kit and occasional washboard, the band boasts an open, uncluttered sound that taps into the blues’ roots without sounding like mimicry.
Devine has been a force on the country blues scene for decades, since his early years with Bo Grumpus, a band with a vast repertoire of rags, stomps, marches, and songs from the first decades of the 20th century. More recently he’s performed widely as a founding member of Lavay Smith’s Red Hot Skillet Lickers, and the Gypsy jazz combo Gaucho.
He was leading his Devine’s Jug Band at a short-lived Mission District performance space called Kaleidoscope Free Speech Zone when he met Howell, who opened the show with a solo set accompanying himself on harmonica and guitar. Devine sat in for a few tunes on washboard and “it just clicked,” Devine says. “It felt like we were fated to play together.”
While Devine had a long track record on the Bay Area music scene, Howell was a fairly unknown property. Raised in the East Bay, he became a teenage blues aficionado with a taste for the unplugged Delta sound. By the time he was attending Walnut Creek’s Las Lomas High he was sitting in regularly on harmonica at Oakland blues joints like Your Place Too and Eli’s Mile High Club.
“At first they were cautious and kept the mic levels low,” Howell says. “After a few times they kept the levels up and I was welcome on the bandstand. Your Place Too was my regular spot. I was there at least once a week.”
He settled in Santa Cruz after earning a degree in philosophy from UCSC, and spent his time building guitars and mastering slide guitar while playing harmonica with Arkansas-born country blues master Robert Lowery, who moved to Santa Cruz back in the 1950s. Looking for adventure, Howell lit out for Thailand in 2008 and spent three years performing solo around the country.
When he was thrown in jail for working without a permit he figured it was time to come home, and it wasn’t long after moving back to the East Bay that he met Devine. They played as a duo for the first six months or so, but the sound really blossomed with the addition of Kyle. They’ve been honing a sound that brings the blues back to the front porch ever since.