Album Reviews

Musical Memories with Rusted Root’s When I Woke: A Jam Band Ahead of Its Time

Yesterday my daughter was on Tic Toc and I heard the opening guitar riffs from Rusted Root’s Send Me on My Way. It was the background music for some elaborate dance routine, but it inspired me to have a listen to their record When I Woke. I must admit, I have not thought of Rusted Root since probably 2005…and that’s being generous. It has inspired a new album review feature, which will be “Musical Memories.” These are records that fall out of our musical consciousness, but we revisit them years later and gain a whole new appreciation for the music. I believe that Rusted Root’s When I Woke was ahead of its time and a precursor to the roots music movement which will take music, especially Australian music, by storm in the early to mid 2000s.

It is important to remember that When I Woke was Rusted Root’s second studio LP and was released in 1994. That’s right, 1994. When you listen to the record, you swear that it was released in the late 90s, if not the early 2000s. By this point Rusted Root put out two EPs in 1990 and 1991 and one studio LP, Cruel Sun, in 1992. However, it is When I Woke that will launch the band into pop stardom as it hits #51 on the Billboard charts and the single Send Me on My Way being on the Billboard top 100 for 7 weeks. The record itself was released on Polygram and core members Michael Glabicki (vocals and guitar), Patrick Norman (bass) and Liz Berlin (drums) did most of the writing and arrangements. Much like other jam bands, there have been a number of members of the band that have come and gone; however, the core members plus Jim Donovan, John Buynak, Jenn Wertz and Daniel DiSpirito made – up the band at the time When I Woke was released.

There are three tracks that stand out on the record, not only for how they were at the time in 1994, but how they lay the foundation for roots music moving forward. In a way, these tracks act as points bridging the gap between the incorporation of African music on records like Paul Simon’s Graceland in 1986 and jam / roots music moving forward. Other musical influences you can hear in Rusted Root are Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Peter Gabriel’s So and especially Biko, as well as The Talking Heads. All of these bands are swirling around Michael and the rest of the band as they wrote and recorded When I Woke. What came out was a funky roots arrangement with as much percussion as possible, Afro beats and a unique vocal that sounded like David Byrne on mescaline. This bubbling cauldron of musical influences created a fresh sound that will inspire other bands in the late 90s / early 2000s.

The first track we will look at is Drum Tip, which is the first track on the record. This track is a frenetic percussion tornado that has enough energy to light – up a small city in Montana. In a bold move, Rusted Root decided to have this largely instrumental track as the opening track of the record. Any vocals on this track are recorded voices played through high distortion or incoherent vocal sounds. This song is the musical version of running through a field naked on peyote. In reality this track is a big lead into the next song we will talk about; however, it sets the stage for an energetic and free spirited record to come.

Track one, Drum Tip, is really one large warm – up for the next track Ecstasy. You can really hear Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Ladysmith and Talking Heads in this track. From the percussion to Micheal’s over the top vocal delivery, this song has everything. What makes it fresh is that it is not simply imitation, but they are taking everything up to 11 and making their own sound. Much like how punk was 60s and 70s rock turned all the way up to its extreme, Rusted Root is taking jam rock and world music to its outer limits. Percussion is frenetic and entrancing, while Michael’s vocals boarder on performance art as they jut out at odd angles against the musical backdrop. The common thread that holds the entire song together is Norman’s impeccable bass line. Without that bass line, you are at risk of spiralling off into space to never be heard from again. Lyrically, the track is difficult to understand with obscure references to the military machine and taking away companies and societies. Essentially, what Rusted Root wants is a boarderless world where they can live in love with you and dance to some fire African drums…think of it as a song about Burning Man.

The final track we will look at is the biggest single off the LP, which is Send Me on My Way. There are some huge musical influences you can hear right off the bat. Musically, the acoustic guitar and overall structure conjures images of Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill, while the choral flourishes reminds me of The Lion Sleeps Tonight and other 50s bee bop tunes. Having said that, such a simple and stripped back musical arrangement allows Michael to let his vocals fully explore the space and draw you in. After the first chorus the flute and percussion give us a joyful energy with Afro beats and an uplifting lightness with the flute. This is an extremely joyous song that you can see yourself dancing to around a fire with 20 of your closest friends in order to celebrate the solstice. This track is everything I love about When I Woke, which is an unbridled joy and cosmic vibe that instantly transports you into the song.

Much like Ladysmith, Rusted Root is not about individuals, but how the sum is greater than its parts. At its core, this is an instrumental jam band who wants to play with friends, smoke some pot and love each other. Lyrics are simply a means for Michael to add his out there vocal notes to the rest of the jam. Frantic and passionate percussion, from Liz and others, drives the record, while Norman’s deep bass line is the scaffolding holding most of the tracks together. Some tracks on the record move away from their roots / jam / world beat formula and suffer for it; however, the final track Back to the Earth returns to that successful formula. Rusted Root’s ability to blend these different genre’s can be seen in later bands like The John Butler Trio, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Passenger, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Sister Hazel. Rusted Root’s melting pot of 80s world music, traditional African drums and over the top vocals was ahead of its time and tracks like Ecstasy and Send Me on My Way still hold up today.

Listen to When I Woke

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