“Oh shit! Do you guys feel like getting silly right now? Can we silly the pain away? Let’s try!”
And that’s how Kalmia Traver, lead vocalist/saxophonist/hype-woman of Rubblebucket, led us through the band’s flamboyant brand of Mardi-Gras-esque therapy. Their sound ranged from foot-stomping, bawdy brass beats to tongue-in-cheek indie ballads. With rainbow balloon dragons bouncing through the crowd, the Brooklyn-based indie-dance brigade brought a solid hour and a half of unshakeable, endearing energy to Union Transfer in Philadelphia on January 28th.
Rubblebucket was founded in 2009 by Traver and fellow University of Vermont graduate Alex Toth, who provides trumpet and vocals. The band’s style is rooted in reggae and experimentation, as Traver and Toth had toured with John Brown’s Body before splitting off to develop the psych-dance side project that became Rubblebucket. On stage, the six-piece group refused to ever sit still, swaying and bouncing in synchronized dance moves that blended the tight choreography of James Brown with the giddy awkwardness of Charlie Brown. Bandmates exchanged quick quips between songs and saxophone blasts. They ran around banging on cowbells, far out of the microphones’ range (really, that was just for themselves). Traver crowdsurfed as far as she could until a Stage Crew tech reeled her back on stage by the cord of her microphone. Rubblebucket was just as excited to be there as we were to see them, and their energy was wildly infectious.
At times, the concert felt like guided group meditation, like when Traver made the whole audience – even those in the rafters – sit down on their heels. As the music quieted to a pulsating beat, the frontwoman led us all in a slow chant about love. While we recited the words in unison, a disheveled man in a dirty overcoat ran onto the stage, carrying a five-gallon bucket of confetti and a leaf blower. It wasn’t until after the singer was satisfied with the vigor of our “LOVE!” chants that the man unleashed a massive confetti vortex as the strobe lights flashed.
The band’s humor and lyricism complemented their showmanship well and prevented the whole show from feeling like a clown show led by man-children. New-York based songwriter Sam Evian, who played guitar and fronted Brooklyn indie-rock band Celestial Shore, opened for the band. While I was unfortunately too late to the show to catch his performance, a quick listen to his solo debut album, Premium, showed an artist who was particularly fond of dreamy guitars, and the ever-present indie high-pitched reverb vocals.
In that way, Evian was a counterbalance for Rubblebucket, setting the theme, but not the tone. Though Rubblebucket’s music was much livelier than Evian’s, the wistfulness was still there.
“Oh I wish I was a planet / With a forest full of answers / But instead I’m just a human / Freaking out, out, out,” Traver breathes on the pounding, indie-rock track “Sound of Erasing.” Rubblebucket’s members were more than entertainers — they were gurus, encouraging self-empowerment through learning from our mistakes and shrugging off the small stuff. To drive that point home, the title track of their 2017 EP, If U C My Enemies, was inspired by the Dalai Lama, and his belief that our enemies can be our greatest teachers:
“If you see my enemies / Tell ‘em I stand corrected / Tell ‘em I want to be friends again.”
I felt happy, confident, and most importantly, secure in feeling both of those. This wasn’t a band trying to distract themselves from the shit that hurts. Traver recently conquered ovarian cancer, and Toth, in solidarity, took up a pledge of sobriety. And here they were, blasting confetti at us and yelling “We’re not safe / We’re not secure.” So let’s be happy. Let’s be sad. Let’s be confused.
Let’s be people.
The inevitable encore only doubled down on the sheer power of their sound. After bassist Daniel McDowell slid on stage for a quick solo, the rest of the band joined in ferociously. The strobe lights were going haywire as Disheveled Confetti Man sprinted onto the stage once again, screaming and flailing. He jumped onto a step stool with an astonishing level of coordination before slinking away.
“I have no idea who that was,” Toth and Traver laughed.
The encore ended in a single-file march through the audience and out the door into the merch room. Toth stood on top of the seller’s table, and for a solid five minutes he blasted his trumpet as the rest of the band chanted, clapped, and played what they could – McDowell and guest drummer Ian Chang managed to snag some hi-hats before they left the stage.
After a week of taking and being surrounded by finals, it was truly cathartic just to feel entranced – the only thing that could have completed the experience would have been a rendition of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” I perform, myself, and one of the things I always tend to complain to my friends about at concerts is wishing I was up there, playing for a crowd. But at this concert, I didn’t really get that feeling, because the band felt like a part of us just as much as we did them.
Seeing Rubblebucket live was the most fun I’ve ever had at a concert, and exactly the kind of release I needed after Finals Week. It was like they threw a surprise birthday party for my insecure self, befitting their most-recognized song “Came Out Of A Lady.”
And what was the most comforting was that they were trying to find the answers to tough questions just as much as we were. Is a “chromed-up, lubed up image of ourselves” really all that we are? Did we succeed in silly-ing the pain away? No matter what, we had a damn good time trying.