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From dreary Russian literature to rollicking vaudeville, the institution of brotherhood has seen the likes of Karamozov and Marx -- everything from man's agonizing search for redemption to a well-timed custard pie right in the ol' kisser. Among certain fraternal orders, you'll find varying degrees of Masonic ritual, torchlit whispers, secret handshakes and unpronounceable passwords. There's even the occasional silly hat.
The four members of Denver's Kalamath Brothers dispense with such formalities (excepting, perhaps, man's agonizing search for redemption) by throwing themselves headlong into a wicked place where roots-based music went to laugh and die, a place where lost spirits trudge down bow-drawn bass lines, where fiddles shriek and time rumbles for the seriously damned. It's an amusing nightmare, all right, one with lost and tortured souls sounding off from the hollows. It's a klezmer-flavored hootenanny with backwoods tango, even Eastern European ballads enhanced by eerie gypsy strains.
Frank Hauser Jr., a talented singer/songwriter (who expeditiously mans guitar, accordion, tambourine and plastic whistle) fronts this often somber morality tale, a sly concoction that's difficult to categorize -- which is precisely what makes it so fascinating to hear. A former bassist for the bleak and acoustic Denver Gentlemen and once the most prolific tunesmith in a previous incarnation of Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Hauser combines an enthusiasm for uncharted songcraft with the grindstone ethic of James Brown. This combination results in one of our cherished cowtown's most compelling live acts. As a songwriter, Hauser tends to keep it as dark as the Guinness he drinks. Like his share of Auto Club songs, notably "Raven" and "Barrel of My Gun," Hauser's work with the Kalamath Brothers customarily drifts toward the sinister side of human nature. Equally inspired by New York's joyless noise troupe the Swans as much as by Bob Dylan, Hauser's odd skiffle often pits biblical imagery against the fleeting glimmer of salvation. "I was the apple ate by you," he sings on "Song o' Sorrow," a jazzy, scatty number that yawps the need for a good woman.
Throughout the Kalamath repertoire, laments of love and heartache are inbred with murder ballads of revenge and death: It's Nashville meets Appalachia by way of Heironymus Bosch. "Let the dead bury the dead /Let the birds pick their eyes/When I fall over my grave/I'll remember your smile," he shouts on "Only Son," a nightmarish blues rant with all the subtlety of a sawed-off muzzle-loader. "Going Back to Arkansas" conjures a loose-limbed, bass-strolling kind of feel, but the tune's highly damaged narrator, a hayseed turned rent boy who "never shoulda let that man do what he done," wants nothing more than to return to Ma and Pa. By the time his choral sentiment "I'll be doing just fine" deteriorates into traumatized bafflegab, it's impossible to know whether or not he actually made it.
In Hauser's apocalyptic playground, there's always some killing to be done. The flowers always die, and the lone winds moan for the silver-dollar whore. Taking lyrical pointers from his honorary forefathers, Tom Waits and gloomy gus Nick Cave, Hauser has a way of grafting together unlikely emotions. He and his musical mates (violinist/accordionist Paul Grundy, drummer Tony Morales and double bassist Keven Soll) then pool from their collective repertoire to fuse equally disparate musical genres that -- at once -- might blend something Middle Eastern-sounding with the swamp urgency of a man being hunted down by bloodhounds.
"What we do in this band is work with our hands," Hauser, the Yonkers-born son of a Hungarian meatcutter, says. "We build something people might appreciate. And we do the best we can."
Such collaborations are not born running. Yet what Hauser has found in his bandmates is an eclecticism -- both musical and personal -- that mirrors the amalgamation found in the Brothers' sound. First there's Grundy, whose fellow Kalamaths rib him good-naturedly about past days spent in a new-age ensemble called the Band of Life -- a Beatles-meets-Sanskrit ensemble that played New Mexico's festival circuit. He's performed in Sufi dance-circle ceremonies with Jacob Kaab's Dances of Universal Peace and cites Celtic virtuoso Martin Hayes as an influence for making his own instrument "sound more like a human voice" -- something Hauser describes as "enough to bring tears to a stone." Having cut his teeth as a violinist at the age of six, the classically trained transplant from Independence, Missouri, is also a certified biofeedback therapist by day who monitors the spectral array of brain-wave activity used to detect human depression, trauma and attention deficit disorder. "I notice when I'm in a certain state and feeling really relaxed and content and free to express," Grundy says, "that my playing is totally different than if I'm in a really high Beta, where my mind is racing and I'm stressing out." A former special-ed teacher with degrees in psychology and philosophy, Grundy also moonlights as a uniformed soldier who helps re-enact grand-scale historical battles, providing musket-handling pointers for the enlightenment of schoolchildren.
Then there's the multi-instrumentalist Morales, like Hauser and Soll, another relative dinosaur on the Denver scene. Morales's musical partnership with wife Elizabeth Rose, longtime vocalist for the couple's outfit Sympathy F, remains as binding as it does fruitful. When Rose isn't acting in local theater productions or singing in the acid-jazz band Bliss, the versatile pair performs as a jazz duo. Additionally, Morales has lent his talents to theater productions, including playing impromptu, French-flavored classical piano (with Hauser squeezing melodica) for a Boulder-produced drama about Vincent van Gogh. "We hacked that music up to death," Morales says, laughing. The fabled Dutch crackpot who, in Hauser's estimation, was "easier to have hanging on your walls than sitting on your couch," seems a fitting muse for the pair.