Salmonfest: Rusted Root defies genre

Since 1990, Pittsburgh, Pa., band Rusted Root has been shaking up the music scene like a magnitude-9 earthquake in a rickety log cabin. Though they’ve performed concerts in Anchorage and elsewhere in Alaska, for the first time ever Rusted Root performs at Salmonfest, the three-day festival of fish, fun and music held Friday-Sunday at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds, Ninilchik.

Rusted Root had been trying to come to Salmonfest for years and finally made it happen in 2017, said founder Michael Glabicki, 48, in a phone interview on July 20.

“We’re super excited. We love coming to Alaska. It’s an amazing place to play music,” he said.

Rusted Root came out of lead singer and guitarist Glabicki’s vision in the late 1980s after he dropped out of college and started writing songs. He brought in Patrick Norman on bass guitar and Liz Berlin, both on percussion and backing vocals. The band played in Pennsylvania clubs before cutting its first album, “Cruel Sun,” in 1992. This year marks its silver anniversary as a record-producing band.

Originally, the band’s name didn’t mean anything, but now, Glabicki said, “To me as time goes on, as you see the industrial age and all the problems it’s caused and the possible extinction of the human race, it’s like getting back to the root and trying to focus on that.”

That’s also a perfect fit for Salmonstock, a music festival that considers part of its mission raising awareness about environmental issues like protecting wild salmon.

The band now includes Bobby Schneck Jr. on bass, Zil Fessler on main drums and percussion, and Dirk Miller on guitar, backing vocals, lead electric guitar, flute and percussion. Norman won’t be at Salmonstock, however.

All those percussionists give a clue as to a abig part of Rusted Root’s sound: hard driving, soul rattling drums, shakers, djembes and other rhythm instruments. On their second and first studio-produced, “When I Woke,” Rusted Root starts off with a 3-minute percussion piece, “Drum Trip.”

As Rolling Stone writer Matt Damsker wrote in his review, “Any band that kicks off its major-label debut album with a barrage of drums and still rings up platinum sales is blessed with guts, talent and luck.”

In the 1990s, not a lot of American bands dipped into the world beat sound. South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo had made its debut on Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and The Talking Heads had used African percussion in their music. Peter Gabriel also explored African beats in his solo album, “So.”

Glabicki said he got exposed to African rhythms from seeing West African bands who played at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. A cousin also played African music with a CMU musicologist.

“Seeing some West African bands at the college, I thought, Wow, that sounds awesome,” Glabicki said. “Just seeing someone play the cowbell — I was entranced. This was something I would like to explore.”

At the same time, Glabicki said he didn’t come at the sound from an academic perspective, like charting polyrhythms and complex beats.

“I didn’t really study it. I just enjoyed it and got into the feeling of it,” he said. “I wanted to mediate in the music and bring up rhythms that resembled it and felt the same way … For me it was more the vibe of it. I would say the vibe is communal. It’s community, oneness and togetherness.”

Percussion alone doesn’t explain the Rusted Root sound. It includes Glabicki’s wild singing — scat and yodeling, for example — along with a solid rock ’n’ roll sound. They hit the Billboard charts with their single, “Send Me on My Way,” featured on their debut album, “Cruel Sun,” and continued success with seven more albums. Trying to slot Rusted Root into a genre is like calling a platypus a mammal — yeah, but it has a duck bill.

“Everybody tries to explain Rusted Root’s sound and nobody can do it. I love that,” Glabick said. “That just says to me, as a songwriter I remain true to where I am at the time and found it. I found it at those moments — not always.”

Glabicki said a newer sound for Rusted Root has emerged out of festivals like Salmonstock.

“The way I would describe it is over the years of playing our older material, in leading the band I try to leave it open to complete and utter acceptance of where the crowd is,” he said. “What happens in some of those moments is it magically turns into something we’ve never done before.”

That willingness to embrace change will lead Rusted Root into its next 25 years, Glabicki said.

“It’s a great time for us. It’s time to come up with a different sound for us. It’s past the 25 years and trying to create the sound of the next 25 years.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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