Charlie Chaplin, Bob Dylan and P.T. Barnum walk into a bar. OK, so there's no punch line, but that's definitely a bar where you'd find the nostalgic 20-somethings of San Diego's The Silent Comedy.
"Our aesthetic sensibilities are sort of inspired by silent cinema," says Josh Zimmerman, who shares lead duties with his older brother, Jeremiah.
Formed in 2005 with locals Justin Buchanan, Ian Kesterson and Joey Nelson-all multi-instrumentalists-The Silent Comedy arrived about 80 years after the first "talking pictures" and 40 years after Dylan went electric, some say killing folk music for good.
"We say "folk' as an umbrella," Josh explains. "But the sound's not technically folk. It's just we use sort of folk intentions and folk instruments."
It's loosely written, backwoods mountain music with all the eccentricities of an old-timey Vaudeville act. When the members of Silent Comedy get in character for a show, they "perform" the same way theater actors might. The scene they set may well be ripe for a silent film-one shot on location in a rowdy Irish pub or a 19th-century saloon that catered to coal miners. Garbed in old-fashioned banker suits (suspenders, bowlers, creative facial hair), they exemplify the over-the-top showmanship that was common back when black and white was as high-def as things got.
"[There's] a kind of nostalgia that doesn't actually exist, but we feel it," Jeremiah says. "That klinky, ragtime piano, song-and-dance-man persona. That kind of fascination is there, too, wondering what that would have been like."
Their fascination with ye olden times seems out of step with a lot of music these days. Particularly, because it's not terminally serious.
"There're too many indie shows where people are trying so hard to be apathetic," remarks Kesterson, a tree-trimmer by day, violinist by night. "We really don't have the time or the inclination to be cool."
"Not a lot of people, especially at the local level, are really putting on a show. A lot of them are just doing a collection of songs," Josh suggests. "So we go crazy. We do this sort of Southern Gospel, crazy Pentecostal tent-revival kind of vibe."
"But with whiskey," adds Nelson, drummer and trombone player, primarily.
The effect of their ripped-in-church routine was visible during a recent show at the Beauty Bar. Normally a venue where people come to posture rather than participate, the crowd voluntarily took their hands from their pockets. And not just for a smoke.
"I think a lot of it is due to the whole gang-vocal thing," Nelson says. "A lot of the songs have solid sing-along parts. You almost have to pick up your pint glass and swing it,"
So far, the band has won over reluctant crowds on two self-promoted tours. One of them was through the Pacific Northwest, where they felt particularly well-received.
"I think the music community up there is more inviting [and] supportive," Josh says. "We find that people are more receptive out of town. I think there's usually, with most bands, a little bit of skepticism in your hometown. I remember Rob Crow [of Pinback] said the majority of people didn't like [his band] here, and they got most of their credibility elsewhere. When they were big elsewhere, people here started liking them."
It makes sense, then, that The Silent Comedy's most comparable band is Portland's The Decemberists, with other influences including Tom Waits, Califone and the late, great Neutral Milk Hotel. Like these groups, the five Comedians see themselves less as a band and more as an entity. No matter how grandiose that may seem.
"I like a band to have a corresponding vibe," says Josh, who recently was hired to film The Killers' European tour. "A name that has a strong connotative association with the look opens up this whole world of videos and imagery and artwork. It opens up a lot for the stage show as well."
The brothers, along with their father, started the Singleton Records collective to release their recordings, including those from their former band, Dehra Dun. At one of their recent shows, Josh Cass of Get Back Loretta added electric guitar, which they've never used before. They've begun lining up other collaborators as well.
It's growing, this silly silent-movie idea. Growing pretty damn quick.
As Josh explains, "It's really about involving as many people from the music community as possible."
The Silent Comedy plays with Buckfast Superbee, Crash Encore and The Roman Spring at The Casbah on Saturday, May 19. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. $8. 619-232-HELL.