Leaving the Fox Theatre after Dr. Dog's fabulous (and packed) performance Monday night, it was hard to escape the realization that the current batch of diverse North American rock bands (which also includes Arcade Fire, Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes, Yeasayer and countless others) is better than any we've had since the late 1960s. Much of the "alternative rock" revolution of the 1990s was a sham, or at least it pales in comparison to the plethora of transcendent new groups currently touring and recording.
It's clear now that, while underground bands like the Minutemen, Black Flag and Sonic Youth unequivocally kicked ass, much of what passed for rock 'n' roll in the 1980s was so incredibly awful that Pearl Jam and Nirvana looked like infallible geniuses when they arrived in the early '90s.
In addition, back then we were made to believe that flash-in-the-pan neo-hippie wonders like Blind Melon, the Spin Doctors, and even Pittsburgh's Rusted Root, with their 1995 MTV hit "Send Me On My Way," were their generation's Grateful Dead.
But, as the cliche goes, where are they now? Rusted Root opened for the Dead on the late Jerry Garcia's final tour, and When I Woke, with its impressive percussion, endearing flute solos and gibberish vocal rave-ups, made the top 40 in early 1995. Former Talking Head Jerry Harrison skillfully produced 1996's Remember, which also cracked the top 40, but Rusted Root's unique tribal rhythms and jam-rock grooves slowly turned into streamlined hippie pop. Sadly for Pittsburgh natives, Rusted Root failed to become the first-ever mega-successful rock band from the Steel City; and, other than math-rock deities Don Caballero, no Pittsburgh act hit the big time between Rusted Root and newcomer Girl Talk.
Not everyone would be proud to have been partly responsible for inspiring the String Cheese Incident and dozens of other now-stereotypical "tribal" jam-pop bands. But Rusted Root co-founder and front man Michael Glabicki recently told Boulder Weekly that the band's influence on the polarizing jam-band phenomenon, which was just beginning as Rusted Root emerged in the early-'90s, doesn't seem un-credited.
"I think it goes pretty noticed," Glabicki says. "We are an original band [and] that connects to a lot of other original styles and bands. People enjoy hanging with us. I think because people can't really attach us to any one particular genre the only thing we get credit for is being ourselves and that's fine with me."
Glabicki also told us that coming from an underrated American city like Pittsburgh and then remaining there even as Rusted Root found considerable mainstream success still makes total sense.
"Pittsburgh is the great incubator," he notes. "It spawns and rewards a good work ethic with originality hence Rusted Root and six Super Bowls. We love it!" Rusted Root's latest album, this spring's Stereo Rodeo, is its first studio album since 2002's critically and commercially disappointing popheavy effort Welcome to My Party.
Along with an exceptional cover of Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds," the world-beat aspect of the group's sound is highlighted on the new 11-song collection. The inclusion of ecstatic lyrics, trademark late-era Talking Heads-meets-Santana grooves and percussion virtuosity recalls what made Rusted Root a remarkable and influential outfit in the first place.
However, Stereo Rodeo has more of a contemporary singer-songwriter feel than early Rusted Root, as if Glabicki was writing poetry while traveling through Europe and later juxtaposed it with rock music when the band got together.
"Yes, some of the songs were written exactly that way," Glabicki admits. "'Animals Love Touch' I wrote in Spain. It was definitely many different times and places for the writing. In general the songs were more intended to be solo songs at first. I explored the intimacy of them on solo tours in front of smaller audiences and decided later to bring them to the band. There is a lot of that intimacy retained on the album 'cause the band was very responsive to it."
Still, what immediately stands out in a good Rusted Root recording or performance is the extraordinary drumming the group has always been known for. Although acclaimed percussionist Jim Donovan is no longer behind the kit, Jason Miller (who teaches percussion at Mt. Lebanon High School in suburban Pittsburgh) has been admirably filling Donovan's shoes since 2006 and repeatedly elevates Stereo Rodeo. Although, according to Glabicki, Rusted Root's longcelebrated percussion section is actually the result of his eccentric guitar playing, which sometimes resembles Bob Weir's oddball approach.
"The drumming in Rusted Root almost always stems from the rhythm of the acoustic guitar," Glabicki says. "Jim [Donovan] is a great drummer [but] the great thing was the amount of time Jim and I spent in a room working stuff out. That's what I think is unique about Rusted Root that the acoustic guitar becomes more the backbone and the drums are sympathetic to it."
As for the Elvis cover? "I started playing it during a sound-check," Gablicki explains. "I turned to the drummer and asked him to play a Latin beat and that was pretty much it. We played it that night and the fans loved it. At that point I felt like we had to put it on the album. Looking forward to bringing it to Colorado."
Adam Perry writes a music-related blog called Beautiful Buzz at www.adamperrywrites.wordpress.com
On the Bill
Rusted Root plays the Fox Theatre on Wednesday, Oct. 21. Doors at 8:30. Crowfield opens. Must be 21 to enter; tickets are $25 to $30. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.