Native American flutist Cody Blackbird’s mesmerizing instrumental flights of fancy are wondrous to behold — soothing, majestic, and dazzling all at a stroke — but they’re only part of the magic that makes the Cody Blackbird band sizzle. No mere novelty act, the three-piece outfit fuses traditional Native-American flute music with blues, heartland rock, and a multi-culti jam-band sensibility, creating a wholly original and wholly American rock form that Blackbird himself refers to as “AlterNative.”
But originality is a tough sell, and Blackbird admits that club owners are often skeptical. “At the promotional level, it can be hard to get over,” says Blackbird in a recent phone interview. “But once we get to play, at the audience level, we’ve gotten nothing but love and acceptance.
“And at that point, once the club owners see what we’re able to do, they’re usually ready to invite us back either during the first set break or by the end of the show.”
That Blackbird became a well-traveled musician isn’t surprising. His father, Thomas Blackbird, was a singer-songwriter as well as a longtime mainstay on the Cowboy Poetry circuit. Both parents were serious music buffs, boasting an expansive vinyl record collection which young Cody plundered from an early age, absorbing many of the rock and blues influences that would later inform his own music — B.B. King and Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan and (of course) Jethro Tull …
His introduction to Native American flute music, however, was more therapeutic than recreational. “I was an extremely hyperactive kid,” Blackbird says. “And at some point early on, my parents discovered that if they put on a record of really relaxing Native American flute music, I would drift off to sleep. The sound of that music was the only thing that slowed my brain down.”
Around age 8, Blackbird was exposed to the music of Native American outfit Medicine Dream, which inspired him to take up the Native American flute himself — “I knew at that point that I had to play that instrument,” he says. His development as a player rapidly took off, as did his career; within a couple of years, he had performed as an opening act for Medicine Dream.
Throughout his youth, Blackbird toured the Native American festival circuit as a solo act, and recorded a handful of critically lauded albums of traditional flute music. Then, in 2013, a promoter asked him to pull together a full band for a one-off gig. The result was the Cody Blackbird Band, a three- and sometimes four-member outfit that has become Blackbird’s main musical outlet, and with whom he has issued three full-length releases.
Having consumed a wealth of diverse rock, blues, and folk influences from his parents’ vast record collection, Blackbird says he had little trouble finding a niche for his flute forays in the medium of modern rock ‘n’ roll. He says he views the instrument in much the same way as a lead guitarist or harmonica player, and indeed, many of his flute solos sound like an electric guitar hopped up on a wall of effects — think Jack White on “Icky Thump,” or Jimi Hendrix at the end of “Third Stone from the Sun.”
A couple of critics have even noted similarities between CBB’s music and that of Blues Traveler, going so far as to dub Blackbird the John Popper of Native American flute.
But most successful rock ‘n’ roll hinges on vocal performance, and Blackbird admits he was at first uncomfortable with exercising the full force of his gruff but powerful baritone. “I’ve always loved singing, but haven’t necessarily been comfortable coming out as a lead vocalist,” he says. “So we started out as sort of a progressive instrumental group. But once I started writing lyrics and singing, people seemed to like it.
“One promoter told me, ‘You know, this flute thing is great, but your voice is this band’s best asset.'”
And so it is that, in many ways, the band is still finding its path. As he gains confidence and momentum as a bandleader, Blackbird says he’d like to take CBB to some much bigger stages. “I’d like to play Glastonbury in five years or so,” he says. “That’s the direction i’d like to go with this band. I think the sky’s the limit for us.
“The music business is a tough industry, and there’s lots of façade. But I think we can stand out because we’re into keeping it real. What we have is a message of humanity, love and unity through music. That’s what we’re about. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are great. But love, unity and rock ‘n’ roll are even better.”
Cody Blackbird Band will play Preservation Pub Friday, July 28 at 10 p.m.