MerleFest takes its direction from its founder, Doc Watson, who referred to the music at the annual festival in honor of his late son Merle, as “traditional-plus.” This year, San Francisco band The Brothers Comatose will be representing that “plus” with a far from traditional bluegrass take on acoustic music. While the Morrison brothers and their band play traditional bluegrass instruments, the songs they play on them are more rock n’ roll.
“We're not very traditional,” Ben Morrison told AXS.com in an exclusive interview. “We've been embraced by some of that world so I guess it fits in there in one way or another. Our songs follow more of a rock/pop song structure with bluegrass instrumentation. Hopefully the Merlefest crowd will dig it...and our freestyle dancing.”
The Brothers Comatose are scheduled to perform on the Hillside Stage, on Friday, Apr. 29 at 2:45 p.m., immediately before the high profile and super popular annual set by Americana masters, Donna the Buffalo. Before that, MerleFest has the Morrisons’ band in the Dance tent, hosting a “Freestyle Dance,” something Ben, at least, finds rather mysterious.
“We're most excited to find out what the hell we're going to do during our ‘Freestyle Dance’ set on Friday at noon,” Ben Morrison told AXS. “I just noticed that on the website. What does that mean? Are we teaching people how to freestyle dance during our set? I don't know. I hope so. I've been working on my free jazz dance chops. Finally...some payoff for all that hard work.”
The band, made up of brothers Ben (guitar) and Alex (banjo) Morrison, along with Gio Benedetti (bass), Phil Brezina (fiddle), Ryan Avellone (mandolin) and multi instrumentalist Josh Rabie, has developed a solid fan base on the West Coast, touring with groups such as the Yonder Mountain String Band, appearing at festivals and now headlining at club dates. The Brothers Comatose, despite the name, are known for high energy shows, which often involve an inflated alligator, chopsticks, audience sing-a-longs, and - yes - a fair amount of jumping around and freestyle dancing on stage.
The brothers grew up around music, thanks to their mother’s participation in a folk quartet. Ben and Alex initially started playing on instruments that got left around the house following band practice. The boys learned to play all the classic rock covers, eventually segueing into original songs as their virtuosity grew. Today, they are sitting in the forefront of the West Coast Americana scene with a bright original sound threaded with a bit of Southwestern rowdy, played on classic string band instruments.
Their new record, City Painted Gold, is their third, following the release of Songs From The Stoop (2010) and Respect the Van (2012), and is out now on Swamp Jam Records. A fun, fast-moving tempo and expert playing should ensure them a warm welcome from the traditional-plus fans at MerleFest.
This year is the first appearance of The Brothers Comatose on the MerleFest stage (if you don’t count the time Ben snuck onto the stage a couple of years back to contribute background vocals during The Waybacks Album Hour set).
According to Ben, the band is eager to join in the MerleFest experience. “This festival is legendary and we can't wait to play it,” he said. “The names are a little intimidating, but ultimately it's all great music and we're stoked to be part of it.”
Find a full schedule of the weekend performances on the MerleFest website. Following its appearance in Wilkesboro, the band will embark on a far-ranging tour of the East, Midwest and South, heading up into Canada to play the Calgary Stampede, before returning to the Left Coast. See the full schedule on The Brothers Comatose website.