The Calamity Cubes!

Folk Alliance International Conference / Kansas City, MO

The Calamity Cubes!’ audience stacked the performance room like cordwood, and crowding of big-and-tall fans was exacerbated by the Cubes’ members. Lead singer Brook Blanche, for example, takes up some serious real estate physically, and it’s wise to add a buffer zone for his monster voice, while bassist Kody Oh needs room for his instrument and another couple acres for his onstage antics: at one point Oh’s athletic performance shot the watch cap off his head a good 10 feet across the room. Joey Henry, on guitar and banjo, lost his hat, too. Billy Cook, on mandolin, had the sense not to wear anything that wasn’t tied on.

The four members project radically different personas: the good ol’ boy in Stetson and ropers strumming guitar; the longhair redneck with a feedcap and manic banjo; the hipster whose upright bass sports gold tribal designs; and the newest member, who either visits a barber or has a close friend with sharp scissors, picking a mean mando. lt shouldn’t work, but it does.

Blanche described his music as “thrashicana,” but I’d call it western punkgrass. The Cubes’ sound mixes bluegrass, the Band and bar band sounds to great effect, and features original songs, deceptively disorganized harmonies and infectious vigor. Ably assisted on vocals by Joey Henry, Blanch belts out most of his songs, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear him on (occasional) soft vocals that sounded like an alter ego.

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After the show, Blanche told Elmore he likes singing softly, but developed his enormous voice out of shyness. “When I started writing, you get awfully distracted when people are looking at you, so I would make my friends sit in the other room to play them for them,” he said. “I’d sing and say, ‘Hey, do you hear it enough?’” Henry also writes Cubes’ tunes, and his contributions lean more toward early Levon Helm or the Band with a strong dose of bluegrass. Like the dissonance of the banjo he plays and his syncopated harmonies, Henry has mastered tension in his lyrics, too, singing “skin like soft cotton, she spoiled me rotten” in a song titled “Devil In Her Eyes.”

The Calamity Cubes!’ patter is intelligent, funny and merciless. Folk Alliance’s host city, Kansas City, Missouri, got an earful: “What can you say about people who name their best city after a neighboring state?” Blanche asked. The whole band is smart and full of surprises, musically and personally. Blanche’s father worked a mine and an assembly line while earning a degree to teach math, his PhD mother teaches college-level English, and before becoming a bearded, tattooed musician singing “I’d rather have an empty bottle than no bottle at all,” Blanche dug infant graves, which he respectfully described as “an important job.” Kody Oh carries tomes by Buddhist monks and a sketchbook with him—and that’s only half the members. The Calamity Cubes! isn’t so much a band, it’s an experience that makes music, and it’s a memorable experience at that.

– Suzanne Cadgène

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