July 17, 2014

Brothers Comatose ready to wake up Bear Valley

San Francisco band mixes rock and blues.

R.I.P., the van.

Many bands hold a fondness for the vehicles that deliver them and their equipment to gigs. The Brothers Comatose, a San Francisco folk-rock string quintet playing at the Bear Valley Music Festival later this month, took that fondness further than most by naming its most recent album “Respect the Van,” after its 1988 Chevy G20.

The 2012 release includes the hoedown-ready “The Van Song,” which hails a vehicle that withstands inclement weather and runs like a champ even when running on fumes.

No more.

“The transmission is shot,” Brothers Comatose guitarist and singer Ben Morrison, 34, said of the G20. The van is parked “semi-permanently” at his parents’ home in Petaluma.

“We are currently rolling in a bigger van,” Morrison said recently by phone as the group traveled among gigs in Washington state. “We needed something bigger and newer and more reliable, as sad as it is.”

The Bear Valley Music Festival runs July 25-Aug. 10, and The Brothers Comatose play opening night with guests The Little Fuller Band. Other notable artists at this year’s festival include Tommy Castro and the Painkillers on July 26, The Delphi Trio on July 27, Richard Glazier on July 30, along with several evenings featuring the festival’s orchestra and special guests including Taylor Eigsti, JP Jofre and more.

The festival is held in a large tent located in the heart of Bear Valley Village. In addition to the main performance tent, small tents are located adjacent and offer wine, beer, beverages and snacks along with merchandise for sale as fundraisers for the festival.

For The Brothers Comatose, a nicer ride suits a band on the rise. Composed of Morrison, brother Alex Morrison (banjo), Gio Benedetti (bass), Philip Brezina (fiddle) and Ryan Avellone (mandolin), the group steadily has built its following during 61/2 years together thanks to energetic live shows, a performance-filled YouTube channel and the recent larger roots revival stoked by the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers.

The Brothers Comatose once played a side stage designated for smaller acts at San Francisco’s Outside Lands but made it into the official lineup for the 2014 event in August. And a bigger van was necessary regardless because the band now travels with a tour manager and sound person.

The Morrison brothers grew up watching their mother, who belonged to a local folk group, harmonize with other singers in their Petaluma living room.

“We were blown away that people could make their voices blend like that,” Ben said. “It’s this magical thing when you are a kid.”

The Morrison brothers and Benedetti re-create that magic on stage with three-part harmonies, with Ben’s warm, slightly gritty baritone usually taking the lead.

The brothers, who have played together on and off since they were teenagers, each started on guitar.

“We played classic-rock covers, trying to learn Led Zeppelin,” Alex Morrison, 32, said after his brother passed him the phone in the van. But “it got kind of boring with just two guitars.”

So Alex picked up the banjo, finding its “bright, punchy sound” more interesting, he said. “We kind of just rolled with that – we went toward the bluegrass realm.”

Alex’s banjo picking – or at least banjo-picking face – inspired the lively group’s counterintuitive name: Ben observed that his brother became so intensely involved in the music that he no longer seemed fully conscious.

The band’s sound is not typical bluegrass but “more like rock-song structures with that (bluegrass) instrumentation,” Ben said. Nor do the Brothers Comatose noodle as much as some other string bands.

“We like to keep it tight, though there is some soloing,” Ben said.

The band’s YouTube channel showcases professional-looking yet intimate videos for “The Scout,” a pledge in song to grow older without growing bitter, and the slower “Morning Time,” which speaks to compromises within couple-dom and features Nicki Bluhm on guest vocals.

Highly melodic, either song could exist just as easily with electrified rock instrumentation. But the strings lend each more emotional heft.

Brothers and bandmates Ben and Alex also recently became housemates, after a room opened up in the San Francisco house where Alex lives.

“We get along pretty well, especially for being brothers,” Alex said. Living together “is great, because now we have a lot more time to collaborate together,” he said.

That collaboration will be on behalf of a new album. But before that is a summer-long tour entailing rock and bluegrass festivals, club gigs and stops on both coasts and in the Midwest.

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