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Published: 2000/10/15
by Bob Makin

Rusted Root: Leave It in the Hands of the Music Because the Music Knows Best

It’s been a year since Rusted Root has been a viable entity. On the verge of a breakup and/or breakdown, the members of the tribal-sounding Pittsburgh-based jam outfit decided to go their separate ways after touring with singer-songwriter Jewel last summer. But upon playing a benefit concert for The Midwife Center in Pittsburgh this summer, they decided to give Rusted Root one more college try … literally. The band is playing about two week’s worth of colleges this month (see rustedroot.com for dates and other details).
Formed in 1990 when the acoustic duo of high school friendly vocalist-guitarists Mike Glabicki and Liz Berlin banded together with University of Pittsburgh-trained drummer-percussionist Jim Donovan and guitarist-bassist Patrick Norman. The uniquely rhythmic band began performing around the Pittsburgh area, playing small clubs and many benefits. There the band’s most devoted followers, the now 66,000-strong Rust Tribe, took seed.

Later on that year vocalist Jenn Wertz (who departed in ’95 but rejoined this summer) and multi-instrumentalist-visual artist John Buynak began playing with the group. John’s signature penny-whistle melodies were featured on the bands first hit “Send Me On My Way.” In 1993, the addition of percussionist- ethnomusicologist Jim DiSpirito brought a new level of musicianship and instrumental texture to the band.

In response to growing public enthusiasm, Rusted Root released its first independently produced full-length CD, “Cruel Sun,” which has sold more than 110,000 units to date. The album directed Rusted Root to the attention of Mercury Records who signed the band and released “When I Woke” in 1994. produced by Bill Botrell (Tom Petty, Sheryl Crowe), the platinum-selling “When I Woke” spawned the aforementioned hit, “Send Me On My Way,” as well as other Rusted Root standards, such as “Ecstasy,” “Martyr” and “Drum Trip.”

The more introspective album “Remember,” released in 1996, was recorded at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif. Jerry Harrison, keyboardist of the Talking Heads, produced. The disc contains the songs, “Heaven,” “Who Do You Tell It To” and “Virtual Reality,” which was featured in the 1997 summer movie “Twister,” as well as its soundtrack. The “Twister” soundtrack was certified gold in 1998.

Released that year was the band’s third Mercury album, a self-titled effort featuring Rusted Root’s most potent mixture of Latin, African, Eastern, Soul, Rock, and traditional American music. Produced by Susan Rogers (Barenaked Ladies, Prince, David Byrne, Nil Lara) and Pat Moran (Robert Plant, Iggy Pop, Edie Brickell), the disc featured the exuberant “Magenta Radio,” the uplifting “Rising Sun,” the beautiful “My Love,” the rousing “She Roll Me Up,” the signature drum piece “Agbadza,” the ethereal “Moon” and a cover of the Stones classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” featuring Hot Tuna, tourmates on the 1998 Further Festival. Hot Tuna keyboardist Pete Sears also played on several tracks adding piano, organ, and accordion to the mix.

In addition to these recordings, Rusted Root has released three EPs: “Live,” “Airplane” and “Evil Ways,” featuring a cover of the classic by Santana, with whom Rusted Root has shared the stage. One of the acts featured on the HORDE Tour, the band also opened for such influences as: The Grateful Dead, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and The Allman Brothers Band.

Dedicated to a myriad of environmental and social causes, Rusted Root regularly invites groups such as The Rainforest Action Network and Planned Parenthood to distribute information at their shows. That dedication to good causes led to the band’s reunion and reformation.

With Mercury gobbled up by Island/Def Jam, Rusted Root will record a disc for that label early next year. But this time, the band members will continue to pursue their individual projects, which are spelled out in the following interview with Donovan, along with a variety of healing and insightful thoughts.

It’s really good to hear that Rusted Root is not only back but back with Jenn, who hasn’t played with the band in five years. Comment on why you took a hiatus and what brought you back together, particularly with Jenn.

Well, we’d been working for 10 years pretty much straight through without ever really taking more than a couple of months off here and there. We got to a point where we sort of felt creatively spent. I know I felt that way. In my opinion, in creativity, if you don’t have time for input, it’s hard to put out high quality creativity. That was a big factor working against us is that we just never took the time to have life experience in 10 years. We were always working, making a record or out on the road or doing something. And so it took us to a point, where we were like, ‘You know what? It isn’t really working. It’s feeling kind of stale. Let’s just put it down.’

We left it open that maybe someday we’d come back to it. It could be next year or it could be in 10 years. None of us, including myself, really expected it to come back around for a while if at all simply because it felt like it had run its course. Then in April, I got a phone call my The Midwife Center where my wife and I had just had a baby. They delivered our child.

What’s your baby’s name?

Her name is Tupelo, like ‘Tupelo Honey.’ She’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my life by a long shot. So these folks called. They were in dire need of funding. They were like, ‘The hospital had cut our funding and there’s all these women who are due. We don’t have any money to provide them with the services. Could you help us out? Do you think Rusted Root could do a benefit for us?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, man. You really called at a bad time. We’re not playing right now. I really doubt it’s going to happen.’ I made very excuse I could think of to let them down easy, but then at the end of our conversation, I told the woman, ‘You know what? If it was anyone else in the world, I would tell them no outright, but since I really feel close to what you’re doing because you delivered my baby in March, at least I’ll go ask everybody. I’ll ask the question and we can know for sure. And I won’t be the bad guy.’ I just couldn’t say no. So I called the other five folks and one by one each said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it. Sure. No sweat.’ There was no resistance. It was just, ‘Yeah, of course.’

In one way, I was really surprised that we were going to be playing again, but on the full opposite end, I wasn’t surprised at all because these folks I had been working with, there was a reason I had stayed around them so long. They’re just generally very good people and when they see something that is close to someone’s heart or really means something to a member, they’ve always stepped forward to help out. If playing a show is going to help out that many people, then why wouldn’t we do it? That’s the attitude.

When I spoke to Mike that day, he mentioned the fact that he had been hanging out with Jenn and they had been talking the last couple of months. What about maybe bringing her in for the show and just have it be a special thing, like a reunion of everybody. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting. We really don’t have anything to lose. Why not. It might be a nice spark for us and who knows what that will lead to.’ Just kind of thinking out loud and not really expecting anything. We proceeded to have rehearsals and have her come down. And from the second she started singing again in the different harmonies — I think we played ‘Send Me on My Way’ and ‘Martyr’ in rehearsal — as soon as we heard her voice, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is what’s been missing for five years.’ That other energy, that other voice and the mix of everything that made it whole musically. It’s like getting back on a bike again and riding it. It just fell into place naturally.

And so we had such a good time with the benefit, we decided to do a couple of more dates. We got offered a couple of Allman Brothers opening slots, so we did those. And we did a couple of college dates in September. We’re just getting our feet wet again and making sure we’re actually excited about doing it.

Now this next tour that we’re doing is just the next step in the process of working again together. For the last three weeks now, we’ve been rehearsing four to five days a week, playing tons of new material, throwing a whole bunch of stuff out on the table with the thought that I think we’re going to go into the studio and make another record, which is really exciting and also a daunting task. There’s a lot of work to do, but it’s great work. It’s great work if you can get (laughs).

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