Rusted Root will be performing throughout the Southeast this week. The band has been around for decades, creating, playing, touring, and getting up to all kinds of musical shenanigans. Their 1994 album When I Woke is a fantastical blending of rhythm and sound that, like most of Rusted Root’s work, may serve as a substitute for your morning coffee. It features Mike Glabicki, Liz Berlin, Jim Donovan, Patrick Norman, John Buynak, Jenn Wertz, and Daniel James “Jim” DiSpirito cranking out the extra fun percussion.
The album opens with an energy that seems to grow aeroponically out of the drums and other tools of percussive sound. The band harnesses that energy and cultivates it, with snippets of conversation and vocals circling like a bird of prey – or a police helicopter. The sound intensifies and stomping feet appear in my head, bare legs, and sand between toes. “Ecstasy” ticks to life and speeds up with salty drums, Spanish-accented guitars, and a bouncing bass line. Mike manages to rock an acoustic guitar, delivering a solo that makes me wonder how thick the skin on his fingers is.
The first chords of “Send Me on My Way” bring back the 90s and all those moments the occurred while the song was playing. I cannot say the number of times I have heard this song, but it amazes me how automatically familiar it is. “Cruel Sun” begins with a mixing of acoustic guitar and percussion that brings to mind the stifling enclosure of a stone building, or perhaps just getting really, really, really into the zone with others who revere Music. The lyrics assent to the recognition of the darkness within the light. (Have you ever stared at the center of a color wheel?) At the very least, the track could serve as a rallying cry for groups working on melanoma research. “Open up your eyes / to the cruel sun” could be used quite effectively.
The opening drums of “Cat Turned Blue” prime my ears for the music compass to point towards rock, and, satisfyingly, Mike’s vocals deliver. Like one of Shakira’s songs about being jilted, the vocal performance acutely conveys the halting realization that things are not as you thought they were. Meanwhile, the staccato strings and those crunchy drums give the track attitude. If Mike’s and Liz’s vocal capacities are the trophies, “Beautiful People” is the trophy case. The track serves to showcase the vocal talents of both by contrasting them with more muted guitar. “Martyr” transports the listener to a place where those tall candles of icons are used, with the intertwining of drums and guitar, with a bass line to keep things moving swiftly along. “Martyr” is a party with spicy dip and plenty of corn chips.
The album shifts to a track that really fried my chicken. “Rain” runs on an engine of finger picking and a sacrifice to the gods of music. The track is the kind that when performed live, I imagine could be played faster and faster and faster, testing the limits of the band to hold it together at breakneck speed and the audience’s preconceived beliefs about that the band can do. In a word, exhilarating.
“Rain” slides into the next track. “Food & Creative Love” is something oral. It is something with an element of the unknown. Like a close conversation between strangers. “Lick from the wounds of your fears,” sing Liz and Mike. Maybe I should eat more mushrooms. “Lost in a Crowd” opens with the jammy feeling evoked by artists who do not just play songs but notes. (I’d mention some of them, but I don’t want to leave anyone out.) The track builds and builds until the final explosion until something really groovy takes hold.
When I Woke takes a sharp turn to “Laugh as the Sun,” a track that builds slowly, like cooking risotto. “Infinite Tamboura” is an instrumental meditation that glides into “Back to the Earth,” a fitting final track of the album. In “Back to the Earth” vocal revelry takes turns with excitable guitar and the constant percussive heartbeat. A portion of call and response lends the track a feeling of unity before spiraling into something you can really lose yourself in.
Since When I Woke, the band has shuffled around a bit, with Mike, Liz, and Patrick still spreading the love, along with Corey Caruso and Dirk Miller. You can catch Rusted Root in Atlanta at Terminal West on April 4th and in Charlotte at Neighborhood Theatre on the 6th. Wear your dancing shoes.