In 2013, the Americana/bluegrass band The Brothers Comatose found itself at a crossroads. When bassist Gio Benedetti parted ways with the group to meet the demands of having a newly born second child, the four remaining members were left with a major void to fill.
“We messed around with some substitutes, and we just never found the right fit, musically or personality-wise,” explains Ryan Avellone, the Santa Cruz-based mandolinist for the group. “It was really hard, actually.”
Rather than calling it quits after losing one of the band’s main songwriters, the Brothers went into what Avellone calls “songwriting hibernation mode,” composing material for their next album. When it came time to record these new songs, they called on Benedetti, who agreed to play bass and do some singing on the new album. “It was great. It was like the band was back together,” Avellone recalls.
The result is City Painted Gold, an album scheduled to be released in March of 2016. As Avellone explains, the title is taken from a new song about “the mass exodus of artists from San Francisco—including the two brothers in the band getting evicted from their house on Haight Street.” With a chuckle, the mandolinist goes on to explain that the owners of the house that the group’s guitarist and banjoist (Ben and Alex Morrison, respectively) had been renting for more than 10 years decided to move into the place, forcing the musicians to find new living quarters.
After being present for the earliest stages of his daughter’s development, Benedetti is once again a full-fledged touring member of The Brothers Comatose. His temporary absence may have made the band stronger: according to Avellone, while future Brothers albums are likely to feature songs by Benedetti, “his brief departure allowed everybody else to step up artistically and feel like they have a little more of a stake in the band.”
City Painted Gold is the first Brothers Comatose album to feature songs by Avellone, who joined the group after all of the songs for the previous album had been written. Also included are first-time submissions from fiddle player Phil Brezina and the aforementioned Alex Morrison. “It’s been really exciting to see everybody contributing and stepping up,” Avellone states, adding that the new record also contains one cover: “Valerie,” a song originally written and performed by The Zutons and made popular by Amy Winehouse.
“Valerie” isn’t the first song that the Brothers have given a bluegrass makeover. Another example of this is a remake of Huey Lewis and the News’ “I Want a New Drug” that the band recently posted online in an effort to entice Huey to sing the song with them at Golden Gate Park’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival earlier this month. Though Lewis responded by letting the band know that he would be in Europe at the time of the show, he shared the video with his fans. The clip got approximately 100,000 views within a week or two.
The Brothers’ appearance at Hardly Strictly was one of many indications of the group’s growing success. Last year found them touring with The Devil Makes Three and Yonder Mountain String band, gigging with Lake Street Dive and sharing a bill with the likes of Tom Petty, Kanye West, Arctic Monkeys, The Flaming Lips and Macklemore at San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival.
The popularity of Americana acts like Brothers Comatose among young people prompts the question: when, exactly, did bluegrass become cool? Avellone seems as surprised by this phenomenon as anyone. “It’s just some sort of meme that’s going around right now,” he offers. “I don’t know how long it’s going to last. I’ve also noticed that friends of mine that I’ve known for years who have been in all sorts of different kinds of bands are now in re-formed versions of their bands with a banjo in it or some kind of Americana- or bluegrass-rooted instrument.”
For now, the Brothers are more than happy to ride the wave. The band’s next stop is The Catalyst, where they’ll be playing a summer camp singalong-themed Halloween show on Friday, October 30. “We’re kind of going for that ’70s, Wet Hot American Summer vibe,” Avellone notes. To that end, the band members will be dressing like campers and mixing some sing-along campfire songs in with their own tunes. A kindred Americana group, Oakdale, Calif.’s Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, will be kicking the party off. “They’re awesome!” Avellone says with a laugh. “They’re a rowdy bunch of big dudes in overalls—great songs, and they’re just really fun.”
The October 30 gig is the Brothers’ second Halloween show at The Catalyst, the first being a Woodstock-themed event that the band held last year. “There were a lot of tie-dies, Afros and colored glasses,” Avellone recalls. “Some people probably took some brown acid, too!”
Well, let’s face it—a band with a name like The Brothers Comatose is bound to attract a few audience members who enjoy their libations. Yet according to Avellone, the origin of the group’s moniker is not the blackout story that one might expect. The name was the brainchild of Ben Morrison, whose inspiration came from none other than his brother Alex. “If you ever watch Alex play banjo, when he’s getting really into it, his eyes roll back in his head,” Avellone says. “I’m not exaggerating—you just see white! So he kind of looks like he’s in this comatose state. Six, seven years later, here we are.”
For more about The Brothers Comatose, go to thebrotherscomatose.com.