When the multiracial, coed folk-fusion band Rusted Root formed in Pittsburgh, Pa., in the early '90s, frontman and founder Michael Glabicki probably never considered that, in 2009, the band's name might be the most ironic thing about them. Rusted Root achieved success relatively quickly, signing a major-label deal and joining big tours by the middle of the decade. But just as quickly, their earnest, world beat music became a lightning rod for criticism.
With its mix of banjo, pennywhistle, hand drums, rapping, yodeling, African chants and lyrics about love and peace and beautiful people, Rusted Root has been a strong punch line during its two-decade run, perpetually out of step with whatever cool kids were dominating the airwaves or leading college rock herds. But after reshaping the same eclectic and inclusive model for so long, Rusted Root has persevered until the music that was both its claim to fame and its curse has not only been done better but has also risen to the top of hipster awareness. Thanks to indie rock bands like Yeasayer and Animal Collective, who've taken many of the same cues as Rusted Root to somewhat different places, is it time to reconsider the Pennsylvania band's legacy?
Well, that's debatable.
In June, Rusted Root played an outdoor benefit concert in Raleigh, headlining above local favorites The Rosebuds and Chatham County Line on a temporary stage erected outside of the Lincoln Theatre. During set breaks, people joked about how Rusted Root—a band with exactly one hit—was going to fill a long headlining set for a general fundraiser crowd.
Not that they hadn't done it before: In the mid-'90s, Rusted Root became part of the rootsy, neo-hippie movement that included acts like Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band and Widespread Panic. This groundswell of like-minded bands culminated in seven years of the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, a traveling caravan that took a different mindset to the same amphitheaters as Lollapalooza. But for popular purposes, Rusted Root remains a one-hit wonder. "Send Me on My Way"—you know, that song that approximates both an African work-song chant and yodeling—is the band's only single to ever chart on Billboard. The second song on the band's first album, 1992's playful, self-released Cruel Sun, "Send Me On My Way" peaked at No. 72 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart in 1995, a year after it was re-recorded and condensed for Rusted Root's major-label debut. Impressively, four of their six albums have charted, too, but talking radio play, if you don't know "Send Me on My Way," you likely don't know Rusted Root.
A lot of rock critics certainly didn't want you to hear them, either: "A veritable cacophony of cockamamie claptrap," wrote Michael Krugman in 1997's Trouser Press Guide to'90s Rock about Rusted Root's 1994 sophomore effort. "When I Woke is the type of record that thirtysomething middle-management types listen to and think they're hip because they've finally put away their Eric Clapton Unplugged CD and are getting into 'alternative rock.'"
Despite a trifle of popularity and neo-hippie cult-favorite status, Rusted Root was never a very cool band. Remember, they self-released their first album the year after Nirvana's Nevermind reordered the radio landscape and the same year that Pavement released Slanted & Enchanted and Sonic Youth released Dirty. The band's music—criticized as formless and too busy, with "songwriting that remains stagnant" according to one All Music Guide review—invited critical ire more than the relatively understated Matthews and seemingly jubilant Blues Traveler. Rusted Root's music was ecstatic and earnest, headstrong and hopeful. Glabicki liked to scat-sing. At the apogee of slacker disenchantment, Glabicki had the gall to go, "It's a simple thing simple thing well to love once again." You bet he got ribbed.
But what if Trouser Press—and everyone else content to dismiss Rusted Root (somewhat rightly) as a misguided hippie nightmare—had been as relentless in giving every bland guitar-rock three-piece equitable comeuppance? Rusted Root's biggest sin, it seems, was its lack of apology for trying to combine international music with American folk and funk, especially across their first three albums, and in espousing idealism. At least until their fourth album, they didn't back away from their world beat vision. "Send Me on My Way," that total head-scratcher of a radio hit, wasn't a concession for FM dials. Rather, it sounds like every Rusted Root tune, just a bit catchier.
They tried everything: "Martyr," a tune about taking the power back, mixes a Congolese rhythm with a sort of gospel-pop affability. The resplendent "Back to the Earth" conjures Ladysmith Black Mambazo backing someone more wild-eyed than Paul Simon. And, coming as the closer of When I Woke, that tune builds from a 90-second tamboura-and-tabla meditation. Elsewhere, hints of Celtic, Tropicália and Chinese music creep in. In a rigorous attempt to reach for it all, Rusted Root didn't appeal to the emerging idea of indie rock cool.
But coolness misbehaves cyclically, and you had to expect that, some day, busy rock music with international flavor and a definitively well-wishing worldview would come back into favor. Enter a good chunk of indie rock in 2009: The band's heavy rhythmic sensibilities, left-field choruses, Glabicki's exaggerated vocals and the crisscrossing harmonies actually sound a lot like the Brooklyn band Yeasayer, who rose to crossover status with the song "2080" and, last week, announced a record deal with America's new indie rock empire, Secretly Canadian.
Yeasayer's not too far removed from Rusted Root lyrically, either. "It's a new year, I'm glad to be here/ It's a fresh spring, so let's sing/ And the moon shines bright on the water tonight/ So we won't drown in the summer sound," goes the refrain of Yeasayer's "2080." Nearly 15 years before, Glabicki had closed his band's debut with the lines, "Wait here for the coming of the sun/ Bless this life and take us to ourselves."
And there's "Tree," the eight-minute, multipart marathon from Cruel Sun. Its dramatic juxtaposition of deep male vocals and wispy female counters suggests an acoustic version of Canadian stoner rock favorites Black Mountain. Its musical starts, stops and left turns, though, feel more than a little like New York's Akron/Family. Glabicki's guitar playing is loaded with West African devices, too—some of the same tricks that have made Dave Longstreth's guitar playing in the band The Dirty Projectors one of the recent hyperventilation catalysts for music critics.
When I Woke—Rusted Root's big-budget, major-label entrée, produced by the guy who'd either engineered or produced Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, Madonna's I'm Breathless and Traveling Wilburys' Vol. 1—opens with "Drum Trip," a three-minute slab of drums and samples. "Any band that kicks off its major-label debut album with a barrage of drums and still rings up platinum sales is blessed with guts, talent and luck," wrote Rolling Stone's Matt Damsker two years later. That's understating it, though. "Drum Trip" feels like a '90s stepping stone between experimental German masterminds Can and one of their best legacy bearers, Oneida.
None of this is to call Rusted Root pioneers. Loaded down with all of the ideas they tried to tuck into their tunes, Rusted Root often tumbled into the barely listenable. They're not a band whose music later generations should seek out, since their descendents have sorted all of those ideas into better songs and shapes. But Rusted Root didn't flinch as they took risks that cost them credibility and chic. In effect, they helped show the next generation the windfalls and downfalls of not sounding like the cool kids. Lo and behold, a decade later, those records that flew in the face of such snark sound a little like a roadmap for the new crowd.
Rusted Root performs at Lincoln Theatre Tuesday, Nov. 17, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22-$25, and Mikey Wax opens.