Many know Rusted Root for their trippy joyful mid-90s anthem "Send Me on My Way" off their Platinum-selling When I Woke. What just might come as a surprise is that the band owes its very existence to an impulsive trip to Nicaragua undertaken by frontman Michael Glabicki when he was still a teenager. The journey - alternately inspirational, depressing and dangerous - proved life-changing.
Glabicki, at the time a college freshmen, wanted to see for himself the consequences of the United States' involvement in the Nicaraguan Contra war. A native of Pittsburgh, he'd spent the majority of his high school years raising awareness of the sufferings of the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador, but he was eager to witness firsthand what, up until that point, he'd only read about and heard discussed by experts in the field.
"I don't think I'd do it now," he admitted in a recent phone interview, "even though my life wasn't threatened in any direct way. The front lines were well drawn, but I did get close enough start to think about it. One day I was taking a nap on a park bench and some kids lit off fireworks. I got up and just started running. It turned out to be a holiday I didn't know about, and people in the street saw me running and laughed.
"Nicaraguans are often described as the happiest group of people in the Americas, and that is true," he continued. "They are so beautiful and happy, and they were incredibly generous to me, especially considering my country was causing them a great deal of strife."
Glabicki returned to the states and suffered through a period of depression. He lacked direction and purpose and was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. At one point, he sat down and wrote a song, and thanks to that small creative act, his future grew clearer. Given the harsh realities he was exposed to while in Nicaragua, not to mention the culture's rich musical heritage and seemingly endless potential for optimism, the most obvious path to Glabicki lay in forming a band, and not just any band, but one with world music and social justice as its guiding principles.
Glabicki formed Rusted Root in Pittsburgh in 1990, and while they've undergone a few lineup changes since then, they've managed to remain remarkably stable considering they've now toured for a quarter of a century. The current version of Rusted Root is Glabicki on vocals and guitar, Patrick Norman on bass, Dirk Miller on guitar and Liz Berlin and Cory Caruso on percussion. That lineup will join the Devon Allman Band on The Hub's stage Saturday, November 5 for an evening of rock n' roll with a conscience.
Allman is, of course, the son of Gregg Allman, but he is a star in his own right, and his style of blending soul, rock, blues and indie/alternative meshes well with the embracing aesthetic of Rusted Root. Having played several dates together last year, the two bands found they had lots of common ground. Hitting the road together just made sense.
"Devon Allman has an amazing musical pedigree, and he and his band bring a lot of energy to the stage," Glabicki said. "They really get the crowd going, and we appreciate that."
Despite the fact that Rusted Root came of age in America's so-called Rust Belt, it didn't take long for Glabicki and his mates to make a name for themselves in what was arguably the golden age of the indie music scene. One of the Rusted Root's biggest breaks came in 1994 when they opened for the Grateful Dead and close to 100,000 jam band fanatics. The audience was there for Jerry, but they went wild for Rusted Root, responding to the group's good time vibes, world beats and emphasis on spirituality and compassion over cynicism and greed.
Soon you couldn't go anywhere without hearing "Send Me on My Way." It was on constant rotation on the radio, in college dorm rooms, in basements where young people got together to talk about how much reality bit and what they could do to change it. Silly, serious, contagious and imminently dance-able, "Send Me on My Way" joined the best loved hits of the Dave Matthews Band and Blues Traveler in forming the soundtrack of the 90s.
The height of Rusted Root's fame was an equally exciting and confusing time for the band. Now that the 20th anniversary of the Root's second best selling album, Remember, has arrived, Glabicki said he's had time to look back on that moment and think about what it meant to him artistically and professionally.
"The time for me was a little chaotic. We were trying to figure out what our roles were as band members. I think I was a little too experimental, letting the process just happen instead of taking the lead. I discovered that I needed to jump in and work things out. That's how I remember that album. It was a huge learning experience."
That said, Remember is an important album to Glabicki and the rest of Rusted Root, including as it does some of the band's most long-standing hits, including "Heaven," "Infinite Space" and "Voodoo."
"The music itself was very free in a spiritual way," he said. "It came to me in a dream, and so my approach was very raw lyrically. We still play quite a bit of those songs each night, and now there's more of a technical aspect to them - we work hard to get them right - and more of a personal feeling behind them, too. It's funny. When you're older, it's like you understand the process and the meaning of the songs more than you did before. Personal experience melds with the collective consciousness to create something really special."
Rusted Root have released four albums since Remember, the most recent being the spiritually focused Movement, which has helped Glabicki and company reach an entirely new generation of fans. The key to Rusted Root's staying power, in Glabicki's opinion anyway, is the band's focus on the positive. The music is deadly serious, delving into the universal themes of poverty, war and oppression, but it is infused with hope, and anyone who's been to a live Rusted Root show can attest that it's virtually impossible to leave without a smile on your face.
"I think the fun, the good feeling that results from our live shows, is about intention," Glabicki said. "It's the way we approach the music. We visualize it happening. As a group of musicians, we consciously make the effort to bring about a positive response in the audience, and it's our hope that simply by playing our songs we clear out any and all the negative energy in the room. At the end of a Rusted Root show, you should be thinking, 'You know, the world isn't so bad after all. In fact, it just might be pretty great.'"