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Published: 2005/03/05
by Mike Greenhaus

Live – Rusted Root

Fifteen years into their career, Rusted Root has finally released a live album. Simply titled Live, it’s a stripped down two-disc set — the type of independent effort you’d expect from a band about to break free from its club confines. Yet instead of serving as a grassroots introduction, Live sounds like a culmination: a report card recounting the Pittsburgh-bred band’s rollercoaster ride through the jamband ranks.

A decade ago, Rusted Root sounded like jam nation's future. With Blues Traveler and Dave Matthews Band comfortably atop Billboard’s charts, and the Spin Doctors still in heavy top 40 rotation, the jamband scene seemed poised for pop success. Arriving at the tail end of the second generation jamband boom — just before bands like moe. and the Ominous Seapods stretched jam-rock to its psychedelic extreme — Rusted Root was, at heart, a song-oriented outfit. And, while in 1994, the group’s multi-platinum breakthrough When I Woke seemed to capture the spirit of the Grateful Dead parking lot drum circles, Rusted Root never wanted to be tagged as a jamband. Instead, Rusted Root recalls the original crop of Haight Asbury bands: folk-rockers who preached peace and used the term "psychedelic" as a noun, not an adjective.

Oddly enough, Rusted Root's fringe-style jamming has never sounded more polished then on Live. Offering a breath of material, Live essentially, documents a modern-day Rusted Root concert. Aging into jam rock’s de facto arena rock opening act, with support dates for the Allman Brothers, Santana and the Other Ones under its belt, Rusted Root stalled at the ballroom level, eventually retreating to large clubs around the country. Despite being recorded in 2003, during the group’s Welcome to My Party support tour, this live set leans most heavily on When I Woke material (including the majority of that album’s tracks).

Thus, Live feels intimate and inviting, as well as nostalgic and endearing. Consciously funky, and a bit more electric, the Welcome to My Party numbers like "Too Much" and "Weave" still fit snugly alongside early live staples like "Cruel Sun." A stretched out ballad, filled with beautiful harmonies and gentle percussion workouts, "Cruel Sun" proves Rusted Root’s elegance and that songcraft can be an essential jamband ingredient. Nodding to its classic rock roots, Rusted Root also undusts a cover of Neil Young’s "Powderfinger," while hiding an "All Along the Watchtower" tease deep within Live’s musical meat.

In fact, at times, Rusted Root's newer compositions sound so natural they get lost in the mix. Having patented their sound a decade ago, Rusted Root's late '90/early '00s catalogue follows a proven formula. So, numbers like "Jack Kerouac" and "Welcome to My Party" never truly find their own identity, instead serving as filler between longtime live favorites. But at the same time, unlike older acts like the Rolling Stones, these new numbers save Live from becoming a greatest hits collection baked beneath a rig full of hot lights.

Yet, for most listeners, it's disc two which makes Live an essential souvenir. Opening with "Send Me on My Way," a well-crafted pop song dressed up like a 1969 Santana jam, Live pushes forward with an encore-like boost of energy. Not so much jamming as rocking out, Rusted Root stretch "Send Me On My Way" past its defined parameters, making the track sound fresh even after a several thousand college party spins. An extended, eight-minute version of "Ecstatic Drums" fills the obligatory drum/space spot, before segueing into a tight, sped-up version of "Ecstasy" — a seamless mixture of pop and tribal jam.

In an increasingly documented musical age, Rusted Root is an anomaly: a live act without a live album. And, at least three jam-generations later, Rusted Root still deliver a worthy live collection, which sounds like a well thought out album instead of a glorified bootleg. If nothing else, Live cements Rusted Root’s reputation as a living, breathing band instead of a glorified jukebox selection.

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