I’m still kicking myself. I still can’t believe I’d never seen The Brothers Comatose live before this. They are a San Francisco area bluegrass band, around since the late 200’s with three releases under their hats and belt buckles with, Songs From the Stoop (2010), Respect the Van (2012) and their latest, City Painted Gold (2016); so, well, I’ve heard them plenty, just not live. Duh. Sometimes I think I live under a rock. Oh wait, it’s possibly my distance to the Northern California’s musical heartbeat, the San Francisco Bay Area (The City, Oakland, Berkeley, Marin, San Rafael, Petaluma, Napa…..). The physical distance, a two to three hour ride each way, and the radio/newspaper/magazine disconnect together have me kicking myself quite often. So, when I saw they’d be in my area, down in one of my favorite spots in the woods, the beautiful and soulful Henry Miller Memorial Library, well…… Psych!
It was a holiday weekend and I should’ve known better (kick self again) as there was indeed traffic on my way down, which coupled with leaving a tad later than I wanted, had me miss the first of four bands. Calling themselves, Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us, they were put together by local musician, Mike Scutari, who tells this story about Harry and how the band got it’s name [excerpt from The Monterey County Weekly]: “He’s a throwback to the dustbowl era,” Scutari says. “I wasn’t really aware of country music at the time we met and [Harry] was like a doorway into that kind of music.”
Scutari’s first encounter with Harry reads like it could be a scene from a movie: It was a dark night at a lonely bar just outside of Arcadia (CA). Scutari had just finished playing a show with another band he used to play in. In the corner of the bar, sat this guy. “He was this rolly-polly, bearded man who would smile at us every so often,” so Scutari describes. This man approached the band when their set was over and said that one of their songs reminded him of a musician named, Don Gibson. But he [Scutari] had never heard of Gibson. Apparently, after a long conversation about music, the Hotbox Harry wrote down a list of 20 albums he thought every musician should know, and Scutari apparently still carries that piece of paper in his pocket. When Songs Hotbox Harry Taught Us thinks about expanding their repertoire, they pull out that list. Classic country and americana, they’re a throwback to the original days of Patsy Cline and Brenda Lee or Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. That old Bakersfield sound. SHHTU also includes the Henry Miller Memorial Library director, Mangus Toren, who I’m pretty sure I heard tell a story that he learned how to speak English by learning how to play Neil Young songs.
Next on stage were another Monterey Bay Area band called, The Good Sams. Hailing from the Prunedale (or as some call it, Prunetucky) and Moss Landing areas of the Central Coast, where the seal lions, whales and sea otters can be found on a daily basis because it’s just so beautiful, they describe themselves as, “Good Ole Honky Tonk from Moss landing….Stories of the life and times of three Rad ass dudes trying to get by in this World.” (Side bar: looks like they need to update that to include one bad ass chick on the washboard….) Heck, anyone playing a washboard is not something you see all that often, let alone a lady. Sticking to those old school country and swingin classics, just four musicians giving it their all during a 45-minute set playing a stand-up bass, two guitars and a washboard. Just four local musicians – Andrew Dolan on guitar and vocals, Corey “Morning Glory” (heehee) Helgeson on stand-up bass and vocals, Kalu on guitar and vocals, and Sunshine Jackson playing that washboard and other percussive instruments and taking the lead vocal now and again.
I really don’t know much of their musical repertoire but I sure remember their tunes like, “My Sweet Papa,” definitely one that I tapped my toes to every note. With lyrics something like, “My sweet papa, I ain’t no high class mama and I love him just the same…” It was that classic old timey honky-tonk sound with a dash of americana and familiar bass line, coupled with strong rhythm from the acoustics and that scratchy strum of the washboard. Loved it. And, then there was one maybe called, “Tijuana Dream Girl from Hell,” that had a touch of Mexican flair sound to the guitar. They also tossed in a familiar classic bluegrass song with “Pig in a Pen,” that old… was it The Stanley Brothers? Although, I read that the sleeve note in Jerry Garcia’s release, Old and In the Way, says it was composed by Grand Ole Oprey fiddler Arthur Smith, while most sites just simply list the song as “traditional.” Either way, a tune that has been covered and interpreted many many times over the years since it was first written. And they tore it up for sure!
Maybe the cutest part of their set, if there was a cute part, was that Kalu brought his little doggy to the show, who had to stay out in the audience while he was on stage. The doggy would bark at him between songs, stretch out his little legs and put his butt in the air (like they do), wag his tail, you name it… trying to get his attention away from the guitar and back to his little furry friend.
There was about a 30-45 minute break between each band for show goers to mingle, enjoy the history of the library, play a game of ping-pong, have a cold beer and enjoy a taco or sopa made fresh right there on the deck of the Library. If you wandered enough, you might even find an old beat up piano and typewriter, just sitting there, waiting for someone to be inspired to pen a tune.
Next up were another local to the Central Coast outfit called Doggone Lonesome or California Grainers or maybe it’ll be something else shortly after this article hits press. While they’re still figuring out their name, I think they’ve got their sound nailed down. Another throwback to the traditional, the voice of the lead singer was, shall I say perfect for what they were doing. Soft, sweet, unique – it just fit right there. Perfectly there. Possibly taking their name from an old Johnny Cash tune, “So Doggone Lonesome,” they play songs that, to quote one of their lead singers, “Make America Skate Again.” (heehee) Perfectly performing the likes of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon,” along with some originals that evoke that same feeling, filling the stage with sweet harmonies between the lead singers (that I am now kicking myself for not asking their names). I particularly liked their take on Wanda Jackson’s, “I Gotta Know,” that moved from a quick danceable pace to a slower sway, interplay of instruments and vocals, with a refrain starting off quick, “Well, I thought that you was a-wanting romance, but all you ever do is dance, dance, dance. So I boppety-bop the whole night long to the knocked-out music of a jukebox song. A-One thing I gotta know, I gotta know, I gotta know….” And then changes pace, waaay down slow and sweet for, “If our love’s the real thing, where is my wedding ring?” They even threw in a yodel tune to boot! Who doesn’t love a little yodel at the right time? Newbies, indicating this was only their fifth live performance, I’m surmising that they’ll keep growing into their own sound and fanbase. And seriously, again, this girl’s voice is like sweet cream butter – her tonality and ability to sweetly hold a note will take this band someplace for sure. And I loved their custom release, only five of ’em, hot off the press and issued in a brown paper bag.
After another generous break between sets….. Oh here they come – what I had really gone to Big Sur to see, with everything else just being icing on the cake – The Brothers Comatose, the headliner for the night. Slowly, over the four hour or so period before they hit stage, the place became more and more packed. It was a sold out event, which is always great to hear, especially when some of the proceeds go back to the Library. I love the Library. Its a calm and open space, warm and serene. It’s like going to a party at your friend’s house and they just happen to have this awesome backyard. Its the way it makes you feel, its the way it allows the bands to mingle with the crowd unsuspectingly, like they are just one of the folks there for the show. Its a space that encourages smiles and making friends, taking in a bit of history, taking in a bit of fresh air and sunshine and ocean breezes; you know, what Momma Nature gave us. Henry Miller Memorial Library, where the music of nature meets the music of humankind.
Opening up with, “Trippin’ on Down the Mountain,” The Brothers Comatose are lead by Ben Morrison on vocals and guitar, brother Alex on banjo (aka “The Mustache” aka “The Sweater Man”), Gio Benedetti on upright bass, Philip Brezina on fiddle, and Ryan Avellone on mandolin and guitar. Keeping that high-energy dance party going with, “To Be Young,” sung by the other brother, Alex, their set opened up with two punches to really wake us up.
Keeping that same fast-paced traditional bluegrass sound, they do, “Pie for Breakfast,” which, seriously, was all bass! A super fast paced fiddle driven tune, Gio going at the bass keeping the groove right in his pocket. Everyone playing in double time for this one! I love the theme here, the imagery it creates – having pie for breakfast. Apple? Blueberry? Cherry? What’s your pleasure pie?
Between Alex, who takes most of the lead, and his brother, this band has a strong sound, both vocally and instrumentally. There’s something about the fullness of it, the strength to each note, the strength of the vocals and the connectedness of the harmonies that punctuate them as a great band. Their sound is clear and strong, and each musician comes through uniquely. At times, you can really hear Philip’s almost classically trained sound coming through in his playing (he earned a Masters Degree in Violin Performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music), especially during, “Modern Day Singers,” and, well, you don’t find many classical driven interludes in many bluegrass songs, no ya don’t! It, and “Tops of the Trees,” also have that strong and connected brotherly harmony I was referring to. There’s something that happens vocally that maybe extends beyond other harmonies, a chemistry that just makes it tighter than usual. The Wood Brother’s have it, The Secret Sisters have it, Tegan and Sara have it, The Beach Boys had it, the Bee Gees had it…. you get it.
They play with conviction and they have a comfortable experienced kind of confidence when they play. Call it strength. Like with, “The Battle of Tommy Decker,” which sounded very “Devil Went Down to Georgia-ish,” all fast and furious on the fiddle, a driving guitar, and a low rumble to the base… There’s even a moment where Ben growls so low and deep, it almost sounded like Charlie himself. The band quiets down behind him as he sings, “The song’s ended the sound drowned out, he’s regained his sight. The prince stands up takes a silent bow and slips into the night. His back is turned to the east, no one at his side. Listen up, all you sinners, best go run and hide!” This one was definitely from their rowdy string band side of their sound. I got another taste of that sound later in the set too, with, “The Way the West Was Won,” a song off their newest release, City Painted Gold, that included the same furiousness on the fiddle. Man, Phil sure can play that thing.
They also jam on straight-up bluegrass. Raging at a high, take your breath away kind of pace, purely banjo and fiddle driven fiery bluegrass. That was, “The Van Song,” a song about a van, of course. A 1980 red Chevy G20 conversion van with racing stripes and shag carpeting, to be specific. They dedicated a whole album to it, as a matter of fact, called, Respect the Van, filled with songs written after countless experiences of just spending so much time together touring and living on the road in that van. It starts out almost a little, “Dueling Banjo” sounding, except it’s between the banjo and the fiddle, which are soon joined by that toe-tappin thump of the bass, the strong strum of the guitar and the quick and light mandolin. Keeping up with the van and road theme, they play a new one called, “25 Miles,” (“25 miles to go and we’re running out of gas. Singing loud to the radio, we’re gonna make this last…”) and “Stickshifts and Safetybelts,” by Cake (“Stickshifts and safety belts, bucket seats have all got to go. When were driving in the car, it makes my baby seem so far. I need you here with me, not way over in a bucket seat. I need you to be here with me, not way over in a bucket seat…”).
They sprinkled their set with a few more from that newest 2016 City Painted Gold release, with “Angeline,” “Tops of the Trees,” and, “Yohio,” another sung by Alex. For this one, they break it down a little to just Gio on the stand-up, Ben on the guitar and Alex on the banjo. It was all warm in both tone and vocals, open roads and old towns, mountains and trees, freight trains and airplanes, and the sound of life humming. “Yohio, I’m leaving. For my soul, I’m searching. The open road, I’m leaving here tonight….” It reminded me of the sound that Poor Man’s Whiskey might give you, another SF Bay Area bluegrass band that JBO has had the pleasure of covering and one that The Brothers Comatose have shared the stage with.
Taking a solo, Gio pulls and slaps at the stand-up, all on the low end man. Then, all of a sudden, in come the banjo and guitar as Philip and Ryan slowly creep back on stage to add in the fiddle and mandolin, back to the full band with, “Knoxville Foxville,” another one of those straight-up bluegrass tunes, written by mandolin player Ryan Avellone.
I really dug, “Brother,” such a sweet and groovy tune, all filled with bluegrassyness. A song for the siblings out there, the one’s who remember beating the crap out of each other but who’ve since become friends. “Me and my brother and my brother and me. We were two lost kids that couldn’t agree. Well, time it changes people, you see. Like me and my brother and my brother and me. Well, we were so different then, fighting and yelling. Couldn’t ever really get along, until we started singing and playing these songs…..” It really was a sweet one, musically and lyrically.
One of my favorite moments was, “Morning Time.” Ben invites someone up from the audience to sing the vocals with him, and a daring girl named Erin takes him up on it. And, she does a pretty darn good job, I must say! It’s a really pretty song. It’s got that back and forth exchange between the male and female vocals, a warm and supportive and strong fiddle played more like a sweet violin for this one. This duet appears on their Respect the Van release along with Nicki Blhum on supporting vocals, but this night they ask the crowd if there is anyone who knows the lyrics (as they typically do), and a fan out in the audience who admittedly had “practiced it” a bunch singing in the shower, jumped up on stage to take the part! Just a song about a boy and a girl, maybe a case of opposites attract as one likes the sunshine and beautiful countryside and the other is more partial to the moonlight and big city life. “My, my, my, my fair girl. We come from two different worlds. You live the day and I love the night, you got big plans for country life. My skin’s too pale for that sunshine, and the city’s pulse makes me feel alive…. Well maybe just for an hour or two, I’ll get to spend some time with you. We’ll share a cup of coffee and the paper. These eyes are tired and yours are open wide. It never seemed so sweet outside in the morning time…”
A big crowd sing-a-long ensued with, “Y’all Come,” another audience participation song, with the whole place clapping and yelping and shouting, “Y’all Come!” on command and in synchronicity! Letting us know they take note of how well the crowds can perform, we earned ourselves a B+. I thought it was closer to an A- but I’ve got nothing to compare it to.
Closing out their hour and a half long set with, “The Scout,” also off their Respect the Van release and also another audience participation song (maybe we’d be able to get our B+ grade up to an A), this one was so fast and just so pure on the high energy bluegrass level I lost my breathe dancing around. “I am the scout, you are the man. You’re all grown up and you do what you can. Say I don’t know nothing, but you surely see. What I do know is that I won’t grow old. So instead of punching clocks and doing what I’m told, I’m staying young forever, and that’s how it’s gonna be. ‘ll never grow old, I’ll never grow old, I’ll never grow old and mean, like you!” I think I just found my theme song!!!
They tossed in a handful of really different covers, starting one early in the set with, “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)” by Ryan Adams, Cake’s “Stickshifts and Safetybelts” mid-set, David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” (which, c’mon, really now, have you ever heard a bluegrass band cover this? Daring to say the least, and it worked well) and closing out the show with two more, “Blister in the Sun,” by the Violent Femmes and “Brokedown Palace,” from the Grateful Dead. (They’ve also covered the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s, “Bad Moon Rising,” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” by Bob Dylan, just to name a few.) I had overheard them practicing “Brokedown Palace,” earlier in the evening between the sets of the other bands and was excited to hear their take on it. Sweet, soothing, filled with heartfelt lyrics and a little yearning for the show to never end.
Described on their website as, “Infused with a sense of relaxed, experienced confidence, The Brothers Comatose offer a southwester-tinged, rowdy string band sound….” They sure lived up to that statement that Saturday night in Big Sur, under the canopy of trees and stars, at a place where poetic words commonly meet the music of nature.
And, I must say, thanks to FolkYeah Presents, a local music production biz run by Britt Govea. He sure knows how to put on a show. Now, go out and support some local music will ya?!
The Brothers Comatose
Henry Miller Memorial Library
July 2, 2016
Trippin’ on Down the Mountain, To Be Young, Pie for Breakfast, Modern Day Sinners, Angeline, The Ballad of Tommy Decker (the Prince of Haight St.), Tops of the Trees, The Van Song, 25 Miles, Stick Shifts and Safety Belts, Yohio, Knoxville Foxhole, Brother, Strings, Morning Time, The Way the West Was Won, Moonage Daydream, Pennies are Money Too, Y’all Come, Feels Like the Devil, The Scout
Encore: Blister in the Sun, Brokedown Palace