The Brothers Comatose headline the Creekside Stage Saturday.
Fifteen years ago, banjos, mandolins and fiddles were about the last thing you’d find in young, hip indie bands. Now, with bluegrass-influenced indie rock bands like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers touring the country and drawing hipsters like flies on honey buckets, times have obviously changed.
This weekend the Redwood Mountain Faire returns for a third season following a 14-year hiatus. While the lineup is eclectic, new string bands seem to dominate this year’s roster.
“We’re trying to have the music reflect the preferences of the community. It just so happens that a lot of bands in our local community are part of the string band revival,” says Redwood Mountain Faire volunteer and music coordinator Eric Kennedy.
Two bands from Santa Cruz that have amassed the biggest following since the 2000s, the Devil Makes Three and Blackbird Raum, are both heavily influenced by old-timey mountain music. They’ve joined a movement happening all over the country. Central Oregon has Larry and his Flask. Upstate New York has Old Crow Medicine Show and the Felice Brothers, and North Carolina has the Avett Brothers. Even Mumford & Sons came out of a folk revival currently happening in London, of all places.
In the past decade, early Americana has infiltrated nearly every genre. It’s all over punk, indie rock and alt country. There are newgrass, progressive bluegrass and bluegrass jam bands. The list goes on.
The soul of this music goes straight back to the 1940s, before Elvis Presley changed music forever. But precisely because music has evolved so much since the ’40s, the musicians in the new string revival are taking the genre to whole new heights.
The members of Santa Cruz’s Tater Famine, which plays the Faire on Sunday, grew up listening to punk rock but had an equal love for acoustic music.
“Folk and punk basically have the same motto: Three chords and the truth. I wanted to keep as much of the feeling you get from loud, pissed-off live shows, but with acoustic music,” says lead vocalist and mandolin player Mateo Brunozzi.
With only an acoustic guitar, a mandolin and an upright bass, Tater Famine not only maintains a sweaty punk rock adrenaline at their shows, they do it stripped down to the bare bones of songwriting and performance.
What initially attracted the members of the band to string instruments were the limitations of apartment living.
“You can’t blast a drum set in an apartment. We still made plenty of noise with acoustic instruments. We still got evicted from places. I can’t imagine what would have happened if we were plugged in,” Brunozzi says.
Another group playing the Faire, San Francisco’s Brothers Comatose, fuse elements of rock, indie and bluegrass, putting a uniquely modern spin on the string band sound. Brothers Alex and Ben Morrison, along with neighbor Gio Benedetti, started playing acoustic guitars and banjos as kids, covering rock songs at family parties.
“The instruments themselves definitely is what got us started playing this genre. Also being in San Francisco, there’s the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. That had a big effect on us,” guitarist Ben Morrison says.
The members of the band, who play the Faire on Saturday, have such a wide range of musical tastes that rather than try to confine their sound, they draw from all of it.
“Our bass player played in a drum and bass duo. Our fiddle player is a classical musician. He was in a total Death Cab for Cutie band before that. Most of us have played in other bands. If you grow up listening to Radiohead or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, you can add that influence to the music,” Morrison says.
Santa Cruz locals the Coffee Zombie Collective, which starts things off on Sunday, have all the standard bluegrass instruments—a banjo, guitar, mandolin and an upright bass—but they also have a ukulele, a stand-alone bass drum and a trumpet. Obviously, they like to play with the unexpected. They cover such non-bluegrass bands as Nirvana, Outkast and Nine Inch Nails.
“There’s a shock factor when you see a bluegrass setup and then all of the sudden a Michael Jackson song comes flying out,” says lead vocalist and ukulele player Nate Lieby.
While initially funny, the band’s wide range of covers translates well to a string-band setup. Even CZC’s version of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” becomes a totally listenable song. Lieby, who’s played locally since the ’90s in such notable bands as the Sneaky Creekans and 300 Pounds, switched to string music in order to adapt to fatherhood.
“It was basically music we could play around the house and be focused on our family at the same time. We’d sit around the kitchen table playing music together while my daughter would play in the kitchen and sing along or play with her toys,” Lieby says.
Willy Tea Taylor, guitarist and vocalist for Oakdale’s Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit (playing late on Sunday), hasn’t really noticed the string revival too closely. It’s always been his music of choice.
“I’ve never played anything else, but I’ve noticed a lot of my friends from different punk bands are changing to strings ’cause you can sit on a street corner and play,” says Taylor.
Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit is heavily influenced by old-timey country music, but the mixture of bluegrass and rock & roll makes it a hard band to pin down.
“We get dubbed outlaw country, which is weird to me. We’re not even close to outlaw kind of country. I like bluegrass and folk music,” says Taylor. “We just like a good song and being able to hear the words. A lot of people are getting into strings because you can hear the words.”
New String Theory
The first string revival happened in the ’60s and ’70s alongside the hippie movement. That generation’s desire to rebel against their parents’ consumerism and the country’s hawkishness gave the music itself a rebellious edge. They used it to reject the horrors of the modern world and embrace nature.
This generation’s string revival seems to be less pointedly political, though it has every bit as much of a rebellious tone to it.
“It seems like it’s the natural way for the newer punk rock generation to rebel against electronic music, auto-tuning and all the garbage going on in pop music,” says Tater Famine’s Brunozzi. “What can we do that is the furthest from this? I know: get rid of our amps and play acoustic, and still be better than them.”
There have been several moments in the history of rock where bands have come along and cut down all the excesses of rock music. When the Sex Pistols exploded onto the scene with three loud chords per song, they were rebelling against the bloated arena rock bands of the ’70s just as much as they were giving the finger to the queen of England. Nowadays, even punk bands are using auto-tune.
“Music doesn’t need to be more than a good song and a feeling. It can be super simple. It’s always going to come back to that. Now people are embracing the old style,” says Morrison.
More people also seem to be tiring of the idea of the larger-than-life rock star attached to music and want it to return to being more about community and expression, which it had been for hundreds of years.
“Americana lends itself to that,” says the Coffee Zombie Collective’s Nate Lieby. “You’re able to share it with your friends rather than commanding their attention. You can be there enjoying it together. People can sing along. As much as I would like to be David Lee Roth in my sweet spandex, I like breaking down that image of the perfect rock star.”
In fact the banjo goes back hundreds of years to African tribes. Jazz and bluegrass banjo player Bela Fleck traveled to Africa in the documentary Throw Down Your Heart to learn more about the instrument’s origin.
“He goes around with all these tribes playing music, and you can sense why everyone would want to play a stringed instrument. It’s tribal and everybody gets involved,” Taylor, of the Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, says. “Personally, I think there is no greater instrument on the planet than the banjo. Everyone should have one. It just brings joy when you play it.”
While most people still associate the banjo with old Appalachian mountain music, unaware of its African origin, they are starting to get used to seeing young, hip bands redefine its usage in popular music.
“When I heard Mumford & Sons all over the radio I said, ‘Wow the banjo is cool again,’” says Morrison of the Brothers Comatose. “To hear banjo in popular music is such a funny thing to me. You hear the banjo on LIVE 105. Before that, when was the last time you heard that? I don’t know if that’s happened before. I hear people say, ‘I’m really into bluegrass right now because I love Mumford & Sons.’ It’s like, ‘Whatever gets you there.’”
REDWOOD MOUNTAIN FAIRE
Sat. June 2 – Sun. June 3, 11am-7pm
Roaring Camp, Felton
Tickets $18 adv/$20 door