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The devil inside

16 Horsepower's tales of sin and salvation

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When Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, he set a legacy in motion of blues music walking hand in hand with religious allegory. Johnson's haunted tales -- captured on such classic songs as "Me and the Devil Blues," "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)" -- have had a lasting effect on acts as varied as the Charlie Daniels Band, Led Zeppelin, Glenn Danzig and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. But pop-culture depictions of the never-ending battle of good versus evil often devolve into mere novelty. The very mention of Danzig's name evokes an often laughable mock-brutishness, and even Johnson's likeness was used to fuel director Walter Hill's embarrassing 1986 teen fantasy film, Crossroads. But for 16 Horsepower frontman David Eugene Edwards, the struggle for spiritual redemption has always been very real.

Born the grandson of a traveling Nazarene preacher, Edwards' earliest memories are of drifting from one small Colorado town to the next, listening to his grandfather's sermons. Exposure to constant warnings of eternal damnation at such an early age instilled a devout faith into Edwards' young mind that carried over into the music he now creates more than three decades later.

Edwards formed 16 Horsepower with percussionist Jean-Yves Tola in 1992, taking their name from a suitably melancholy old folk song about a man watching 16 horses pull his wife's casket to the graveyard. Since then, the two (along with a constantly fluctuating supporting cast) have conducted their dark symphonies on traditional (and sometimes not-so-traditional) folk instruments and coupled them to lyrics overflowing with Biblical references, raining fire and brimstone on the unsuspecting world of indie-rock in the process. In addition to Edwards and Tola, the group's current incarnation enlists the talents of Pascal Humbert and Steve Taylor, who wield an arsenal of archaic instruments including a hurdy-gurdy, a double bass and a bandoneon.

Beginning with the release of their self-titled debut EP in 1993, the group has combined rustic blues and foreboding religious imagery to forge a sprawling, epic sound that might best be called gothic Americana. The titles of the band's first two full-length releases -- 1995's Sackcloth 'n' Ashes and 1997's Low Estate -- are references to passages from the Old Testament. But despite the music's God-fearing overtones, Edwards does not consider 16 Horsepower a "Christian band" -- at least not in the contemporary sense of the moniker.

"Because I am a Christian and I'm singing about good and evil, people equate it to religion," Edwards says. "That's fine. That's where I've gained my knowledge of what good and evil is. But it's a novelty to peg our music as 'Christian.' And to hear the music in the same context as seeing a movie about a crazy preacher living on a mountaintop is not accurate [either]. I'm singing about my own sins and my own selfishness and the grief that it causes me and other people. I'm serious about what I'm singing about."

When asked about the meaning behind the title of the band's latest release, Secret South, Edwards hints at an elusive family history littered with demons he's not willing to let roam free.

"Most of the stories on this record are veiled accounts of my own family's history," he explains. "Things that happened in the South and that are very important to me, but I wouldn't want to talk about them openly."

Throughout the group's history, Edwards has always served as the principle songwriter. But when writing Secret South, Tola played a much more active role in the songwriting process than he ever had previously. Both Edwards and Tola wrote material separately then came together later to compare notes and combine their efforts. As a result, the music exudes a refined perspective not found in the group's earlier releases. Songs like "Clogger," "Poor Mouth" and "Silver Saddle" hold true to Edwards' lyrical style, but the music benefits noticeably from this co-authorship.

"David still wrote all of the lyrics on this album, but I've switched up the instrumentation a bit," says Tola. "I play a little piano on some tracks and wrote a few guitar and bass parts as well. I've been with the band from the beginning, so David and I are comfortable with each other and work together pretty well."

Like his grandfather before him, Edwards is taking his act on the road. In support of the group's third full-length, 16 Horsepower have embarked on a U.S. tour that the group hopes will spread the good word to the unconverted and also share their newly refined vision with long-time fans. It may even unveil a little of the mystery behind the Secret South.

16 Horsepower plays at the Cotton Club Thurs., Sept. 28. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

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