Don’t try to put The Brothers Comatose in a box. It simply can’t be done. The five-piece San Francisco band is certainly not a traditional bluegrass band by any means, yet their music is solidly based on the bluegrass tradition. Their musicianship is fierce, and their shows are high-energy. And their fans love every bit of it.
Brothers Ben and Alex Morrison grew up in a musical family. “Our mom was in a folk quartet with two men and two women,” recalls Ben. “They sang harmony like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and just being around it and listening to them certainly got the music into our bones,” Alex recalls the music parties at their home. “There were always Sunday jams. I wondered how they knew all those songs. I wanted to do that. It was magic to me.”
Ben and Alex’s mom also worked at an indie music label, and she wanted her sons to have the opportunity to one day be in the music world if they desired. “We took guitar lessons when we were young,” Alex says. “Someone left a banjo at a jam session one Sunday and never came back to claim it. That’s when I started playing banjo.”
Today, The Brothers Comatose comprises Ben Morrison on guitar and vocals, Alex Morrison on banjo and vocals, Steve Height on bass, and Greg Fleischut on vocals and mandolin. “We decided we needed a fiddle player, so we put fliers up at the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco,” says Ben. “Philip Brezina, a redneck from Pennsylvania who studied classical music, answered the call. We feel like we have a great lineup.”
Once the musicians were established, the band needed a name. “The name is kind of a mystery,” says Ben. “Maybe it popped into my head in a dream. I’m pretty sure it was inspired by the way Alex’s eyes roll back in his head when he plays, kind of like he is in a musical coma.”
The Brothers Comatose singing Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon" is hauntingly beautiful, but the brothers and their band aren’t limited in their repertoire. They play pure traditional bluegrass, including “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” by Hank Williams and Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight.” But there’s also the unexpected, such as Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” and “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin.
Their album, Kickin’ Up the Dust: Live at Moe’s Alley, was released on September 7. A fall tour followed, beginning in Nashville and taking them through 19 cities, ending up in Seattle, Washington, on November 16. Touring (and performing) with them are The Rainbow Girls, Goodnight Texas, AJ Lee and Blue Summit, Pixie and the Partygrass Boys, and Taylor Rae.
As they gain a following, more festivals are booked for the band, including Merle Fest, Floyd Fest and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. But their best performances are those where the audience radiates massive energy. “We were honored to play Merle Fest, but it’s a different vibe,” says Ben. “The people there like to sit down and really listen to the music. But for us, it’s easier to tell if people are having fun if they are up dancing.” The band has been known to do interactive activities with their audience, such as passing out chopsticks to use as drumsticks and sending an inflatable alligator out into the crowd.
“When we see people visibly getting into it, that feeds our energy. It just keeps it interesting for us.”
When asked what drives them, Ben said, “I have no other options in life. I have developed no other skills. It’s a good thing that I love music because it helps me bring joy to people, which I love.”
Ben is married to Erica Tietjen, who is in a band with her twin sisters called T Sisters. “I’m thankful for so many things,” says Ben, “but I’m most thankful to my wife and our two children. We both love music, and we are both exhausted all the time, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.” Alex agrees and says that musically, he is thankful to do what they do.
“We have been touring for almost 15 years, and it’s going better than ever.”