By David Rolland
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Selling more than 3 million records worldwide is no small feat, particularly for a band like Rusted Root. The rambling, bluegrassy quartet could hardly be categorized as mainstream. And not only has the group outsold many more-radio-friendly bands; it's also outlasted them — it's been more than 20 years since the group formed in Pittsburgh.
Add to those major accomplishments some eight albums and three EPs. And the appearance of the band's music on soundtracks ranging from TV series like Ally McBeal and Party of Five to movies like Ice Age and Matilda. And all those megawatt tours with artists like the Grateful Dead, Dave Matthews Band, Santana, and Page and Plant. And yet, none of that is nearly as cool as having its most popular song, "Send Me on My Way," chosen by NASA engineers as the wake-up music aboard the Mars exploratory craft. Anybody who's ever heard the song can understand exactly why it was selected: You'd be hard-pressed to find one more uplifting.
Nearly 15 years have passed since that song was released on the band's platinum-selling When I Woke. Though When I Woke was the band's major-label debut, it was actually its sophomore release, the follow-up to its 1992 debut, Cruel Sun. The next eight years would see the release of three more records in Remember, Rusted Root, and Welcome to My Party, plus the EPs Live, Evil Ways, and Airplane. All the while, Rusted Root took to the road, connecting with fans in that hallowed communion attainable solely through live shows.
But the road took its toll, and a seven-year gap spanned between Welcome to My Party and the band's latest record, Stereo Rodeo, which dropped in May. (There was, however, a live album during that gap.) "We were touring kinda lightly, just taking it easy," says band frontman and founder Michael Glabicki of the quasi-hiatus. "I called it 'vacation time,' because we'd been out on the road for a good 15 years or whatever, and it was time to take a little break from the pressure of it all. And in that time, I wrote a lot of the songs for the new record."
Stereo Rodeo is worth the wait, possibly the apotheosis of the band's signature musical stew. It's a lively fusion of sounds almost too diverse to pinpoint, but it taps deeply into rock, folk, bluegrass, and tribal rhythms.
"It's hard to describe, because we kinda go all over the place, with each song being something different along the way of the record," Glabicki says. "I just feel it's energetic and it's real, and it's really got the Rusted Root vibe to it. But we've taken a lot of new directions."
The record opens in the full-throttle fashion fans expect, with the pace and tone set by the brisk, revitalizing "Dance in the Middle," which Glabicki describes as "basically just a really playful, sex-romp kind of a song." Later, there's also a staggering cover of Elvis' "Suspicious Minds," laden with Latin percussion and more infectious energy.
"It just sort of happened on the road spontaneously in sound check," he says of the cover. "I just turned to the drummer and said play a Latin beat on it, and it instantly fell together. So we played it live that night in Boston, and fans went crazy."
The album even includes an ode to good ol' Dubya himself, in the form of the politically charged "Bad Son." Of the inspiration for the song, Glabicki recalls, "I was doing a lot of benefits for the Iraqi Veterans Against the War, and I went down to a march in D.C., where over 100 of them got arrested on the steps of the Capitol in full uniform. So it was a really powerful time, and I decided to come home and write a song about it."
And although it does address such worthwhile, serious subjects, overall Stereo Rodeo buzzes with energy. That applies to the frenetic, high-octane jams like the aforementioned "Dance in the Middle" and "Driving" (which comes in two parts) as well as to intense downtempo tracks like "Weary Bones," "Give Grace," and the title track. This comes, Glabicki says, as the result of writing a record specifically meant to be played live.
"We worked the record out on the road," he says. "Every night, we'd change up the songs on the road with an audience in front of us, and that seems to be what we're all about."
As such, the release of the album has provided the band with a reason to hit the road full-force once again. This Saturday's appearance at Revolution comes in the second leg of the band's current national outing and will mark its second appearance this year in South Florida. Still, Glabicki reassures that it'll be, as always, a fresh experience.
"It's a really uplifting show, and the new music in there creates a great energy and even changes the perspective on the old music, expanding it out at this point," he says. "Our approach has always been to include the audience energetically. We try to create this ritual, where the songs are bigger than us at that point."