Rusted Root’s tribal, drum enthused songs with melodic harmonies give the six-member group a uniquely earthy sound. The group counts African, Middle Eastern, and Latin American themes among its influences and uses them to form the music’s spiritual center. Rusted Root has gained the attention of such big-name acts as Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Sting, and The Dave Matthews Band, all of which the group has toured with.
Rusted Root got its start when lead singer and song writer Michael Glabicki and Liz Berlin, percussionist and vocals, discovered a mutual appreciation for interesting musical instruments after meeting at a political rally in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They combined their vocal talents and looked for other musicians with similar styles. They found bassist Patrick Norman and Jim Dovonan at the University of Pittsburgh. Donovan was studying classical drumming while Norman was a jazz enthusiast. Now calling themselves Rusted Root, the band entered a local music contest and came in fourth out of more than 100 hopefuls. In 1993, Jim DiSpirito, an ethnomusicologist and percussionist who studied music in India, joined the band. By this time, Rusted Root had already developed a club following.
A unique quality about Rusted Root is each member’s ability to play a variety of instruments like flute, penny whistle, acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and hundreds of percussion toys like a washboard or bongos. According to Glabicki in an article in Musician magazine, “Switching instruments can give you a feel for how people perceive what you’re doing, and help you understand what they need from you, and give everyone else an understanding of what you want out of a song… It’s healthy to change things up like that.” It is reported that Rusted Root uses up to 60 different musical instruments in a single show. Such diverse talent allows the band to pursue their successful global sound by playing Latin, African, and Middle Eastern rhythms, among other culturally diverse sounds. The band has been favorably compared to David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, and Arrested Development. Liz Berlin explained why Rusted Root sound the way they do in an interview with National Public Radio: “(We’re) trying to create something we couldn’t hear elsewhere. (We were) just trying to make sounds that I wasn’t hearing that I wanted to hear.” With heavy emphasis on percussion and harmonies, the band has released four albums since their inception in 1990 and a couple of EPs. The band has toured extensively around the country, often sharing the stage with performers like Hot Tuna and The Allman Brothers. They describe their sound as “body moving music.” Rusted Root’s combination of intriguing lyrics with difficult and
Members include Liz Berlin , vocals, percussion; John Buynak , wind, percussion, vocals; Jim DiSpirito , percussion, hand drums; Jim Donovan , drums, percussion, vocals; Michael Glabicki , lead vocals, guitar; Patrick Norman , bass guitar, percussion, vocals; Jenn Wertz , (left Rusted Root, 1993), vocals, percussion.
Formed in 1988 in Pittsburgh, PA; released first album Cruel Sun, on independent label Blue Duck, 1990; signed with Mercury Records shortly after; have released three albums including When I Woke, 1994; Remember, 1996; and Rusted Root, 1998; well known for their tribal world music and live performances; have toured with the Grateful Dead, Phish, the Allman Brothers, and many others.
Addresses: Record company —Mercury Records, Worldwide Plaza, 825 8thAve., New York, NY 10019; Management —Metropolitan Entertainment, 2 Penn Plaza, 25thFloor, New York, NY 10121; Website— www.rustedroot.com.
intense songs allow them to be at the forefront of a new musical genre, a new world beat, so to speak.
As an offering to their loyal and growing fan base, Rusted Root released Cruel Sun, a self-produced effort on the Blue Duck label in 1990. The album was soon heard on more than the local college radio stations; it went on to sell more than 100,000 copies. The album and their performances quickly caught the attention of record executives at Mercury. Rusted Root released their major label debut, When I Woke, in 1994. The album was recorded live in six weeks in the inspirational Toad Hall in Pasadena, California, with all members playing together and doing very few takes. When I Woke has reconditioned versions of songs off Cruel Sun like “Cat Turned Blue” and “Back to Earth.” The album, produced with Bill Bottrell (Tom Petty and Sheryl Crow), has gone on to sell over two million copies. According to one online review, “When I Woke will conjure up memories of early Jefferson Airplane, will swing you like Poi Dog Pondering, and will command your attention like The Talking Heads.” One prize from the album is the eight-minute “Cruel Sun,” an enchanting and arousing ensemble with flutes and acoustic guitar. “Drum Trip” is an excellent example of the band’s ability to cross international lines with musical notes and words. Glabicki has been described as having “fluid, expressive vocals (that) soar above melodies and wriggle between rhythms with both grace and power.” By his own words, Glabicki calls his music “very visual, and I am trying to explain what I see in my head.”
Many Rusted Root song lyrics are hard to decipher, as on When I Woke. Glabicki admits in a web page review that many times, there are no words at all, just syllables “that sound right with the music.” A prime example of syllable lyrics is “Send Me On My Way.” According to legend, Glabicki just never quite got around to replacing the syllables he injected into the music. Some of the songs are just chants, and usually the entire band joins in on the vocals. “Drum Trip” is an excellent example of the band’s ability to cross international borders with musical notes and words.
The sophomoric effort Remember was released on the Mercury label in 1996 after being recorded at the famed Skywalker Ranch, owned by movie producer George Lucas. It was produced with the help of ex-Talking Head member Jerry Harrison. Harrison had also worked with Live and Crash Test Dummies. The hit single “Virtual Reality” can also be found on the Twister soundtrack. Rusted Root has been featured on other movie and TV soundtracks, including Home for the Holidays and the children’s film Mathilda.
In 1998, the band returned to their roots by recording their third album for Mercury in their hometown of Pittsburgh. Pat Moran and Susan Rogers, who have collectively worked with such heavy hitters as Robert Plant, Iggy Pop, Prince and David Bryne, among others, produced their self-titled album. The third album offers a rousing rendition of the Rolling Stone classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which they recorded with Hot Tuna. Rusted Root met up with Hot Tuna while on tour with the Furthur Festival. Rusted Root often played the classic Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at the end of their set and it became a tradition.
Rusted Root has toured often and extensively since its infancy. Early on in their musical career Rusted Root was “discovered” by legendary musical giants, like Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and invited to tour along. They have been seen on tour with big-name acts like the Allman Brothers, Phish, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and Jewel. The band was also part of various summer tours packages like the Furthur Fest and spent two years touring with the Horde Fest. “It’s kind of cool to be out there, just playing with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. It’s kind of a trip… to like see these people you kind of grew up with and you’re having conversations and jammin’ with,” Glabicki said on National Public Radio.
In the nine years since they began exploding on the live circuit, Rusted Roots has developed a strong following of fans, something akin to Grateful Dead fans. That could be because Rusted Root sometimes jams like the Grateful Dead in a long, continuous exploration into sounds and styles. “I’ve never actually seen a (Grateful Dead) show, and don’t know any of the albums,” reported Jim Donovan in an Internet interview at pweb.netcom.com. “We’re not in anyway, shape or form the Grateful Dead, nor claim to be, or sound anything like them—just one listen and you will know that—but they had a great idea about community and we are trying to establish something similarto that, in that we like to bring people together for a common thing … that being the music.” Rusted Root had the honor of opening for the Dead at their final show before Jerry Garcia died, at the Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. “While their live shows don’t have the same what-will-they-play-next? variation as Phish or the Grateful Dead, they do consistently crank out powerful performances. Their multi-layered rhythm section bangs away on a variety of odd-shaped percussion instruments while the bass drum holds it all together by thudding away every single beat,” wrote Glenn Ricci in an online music review at http://members.tripod.com.
Even as their music gets the blood pumping and the feet going, the band will not tolerate slam dancing or moshing during their performances. Rusted Root reportedly walked off the stage at a 1994 show with the Violent Femmes because the crowd was too chaotic. Often times, Glabicki will ask the audience to “take a deep breath and move back three steps” so no one will get injured.
Because of their global perspective, Rusted Root is very world-friendly. Many of their lyrics, if you can decipher them, deal with environmental issues or social issues. During tours, the band will often ask fans to bring in donations for a local food bank. Their web site offers links to eco-friendly web sites, like Greenpeace, and some of the band’s merchandise—T-shirts and hats— are made from hemp. It is their way, said Patrick Norman, of educating people on important issues, other than what is going on in their small corner of the world. For Rusted Root, with their global tribe of fans and music, that isn’t a difficult thing to do.
Cruel Sun, Blue Duck, 1990.
When I Woke, Mercury/Polygram, 1994.
Remember, Mercury/Polygram, 1996.
Rusted Root, Mercury/Polygram, 1998.
Iowa State Daily, November 12, 1996.
Michigan Daily, November 10, 1998.
Musician, April 1999.
Newsday, August 19, 1996; July 2, 1998.
“Rusted Root Interview,” http://pweb.netcome.com/-jwjen-s/mikejim.html (April 13, 1999).
“Rusted Root: ’When I Wokr’,” http://members.tripod.com/~agentile/articles/wiw-review-4html (April 13, 1999).
“Rusted Root,” I Music Indie Showcase, http://imusic.com/showcase (April 13, 1999)
“Rusted Root Bio,” http://dead.net/cavenWeb/furthur/rustedrootbio.html (April 13, 1999).
“Rusted Root Articles,” Iowa State Daily, http://www.publlic.istate.edu (April 13, 1999).
“Rusted Root,” http://www.mercuryrecords.com/merc…tists/rusted_root/rusted_root.html (April 13, 1999).
“Rusted Root Contact,” http://rustedroot.com/rootcontact.html (April 13, 1999).
Additional information was taken from a National Public Radio interview with Rusted Root, September 15, 1995.
—Gretchen A. Van-Monette
Members: Michael Glabicki, lead vocals/guitar; Jenn Wertz, vocals, guitars, percussion; Liz Berlin, vocals, guitars, percussion; Jim Donovan, drums, percussion, vocals; Patrick Norman, bass, guitar, baritone, vocals, percussion; John Buynak, electric guitar, percussion, flute.
Genre: Rock, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: When I Woke (1994)
Hit songs since 1990: "Send Me on My Way"
Rusted Root may be known to most pop-music fans as the one-hit wonder behind "Send Me on My Way," but the neo-hippie sextet enjoys a secure following among jam-band connoisseurs. Michael Glabicki was inspired to form a world-beat group after a 1988 trip to South America. The group has kept a constant lineup except for Jenn Wertz, who went solo from 1994 to 2001. While the group's all-white lineup caused some to complain that it was ripping off African and Latin rhythms, Rusted Root was actually following in the footsteps of generations of fusionists who believe that music has no boundaries.
The group gained local notoriety with their 1990 debut album Cruel Sun, which contains "Send Me on My Way." The opening track, "Primal Scream," sets the newagey stage with mandolin and tribal drumming. Glabicki and Wertz sing co-ed melodies, like a young Fleetwood Mac. Clocking in at seven minutes and fifty-six seconds, "Tree" signals the group's tendency to jam on and on like the Grateful Dead. Meanwhile, Rusted Root honed its live chemistry, gaining experience around Pittsburgh at several 1990–1991 anti–Gulf War rallies.
Cruel Sun 's regional success got the band a deal with a major label, Polygram, which released the group's 1994 follow-up When I Woke. The album also contained "Send Me on My Way," which the label believed had potential as an out-of-left-field hit single. With its sunny flute line and "I want to hold my little hand" lyrical hook, the tune quickly became a radio favorite with teenagers. The single made number seventy-two on the Hot 100 and was used in kids' movies Matilda and Ice Age. But the album starts off with the rousing "Drum Trip," featuring the polyrhythmic virtuosity of Donovan, a respected African percussion expert who gives workshops around the country. Much of the rest of the album is composed of folk rock, featuring the harmonies of Glabicki, Berlin, and Wertz. A typical example is "Ecstasy," a fiery jam whose lyrics denounce capitalism and the military.
The follow-up album, Remember (1996), was produced by Jerry Harrison, who worked with Live and the Crash Test Dummies. The album lacked a hit single, but it is full of melodic album tracks thanks to Glabicki's improving songwriting. The album Rusted Root (1998) gels only sporadically, with the band lacking their usual chemistry and Glabicki taking center stage. However, they return to their past glory on a hip-shaking cover of the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Welcome to My Party (2002) is an improvement, marking the return of Wertz and When I Woke producer Bill Bottrell. The group adopts a funkier, more guitar-based sound with standouts including "Union 7" and the folksy, romantic ballad "Blue Diamonds."
By making high-quality music that's just a little too quirky for Top 40, Rusted Root may have unintentionally hit on a perfect formula. Their moderate success and loyal, long-term fan base allow them to tour regularly and do what they love without the surreal pressures of superstardom.
Cruel Sun (Ignition, 1990); When I Woke (Polygram, 1994); Remember (Polygram, 1996); Welcome to My Party (Universal, 2002).