By Brent Wells
Courtesy of Rusted Root
It was the 1990s, and grunge had just arrived to scrub smeared makeup off the faces of hair-metal bands everywhere, guaranteeing that flannel shirts and Doc Martens would be worn on fashion runways around the globe. You remember, right? Distortion was heightened to deafening levels. Business was good.
It was a time when Michael Glabicki was busy touring alongside a slew of other acts, enjoying the fruits of a vibrant music scene that defined a generation and rightfully earned its reputation as one the most influential eras in rock & roll.
Glabicki's Pittsburgh-bred collective Rusted Root embodies a certain global-village vibe and wide-open, freewheeling style. This doesn't exactly fit the mold of a card-carrying tortured soul -- like, say, Kurt Cobain -- but Glabicki hasn't forgotten that decade when the rules had seemingly changed overnight, when the industry of writing original, artfully inspired songs engulfed the mainstream and pure, raw emotion was king.
"It would be a lot easier if those days still existed, if that palpable energy was still floating around," Glabicki says. "It was definitely alive, you know? It was more about coming out and saying who you were and having this beautiful venue for it. And nowadays, it's hard to get through who you are. It's hard for bands that have a real voice, a real unique thumbprint and something unique to say. It's just harder."
Nevertheless, fighting to be heard has given Rusted Root's principal songwriter a renewed perspective on the importance of honing his craft. "The struggle has been good," Glabicki notes. "The struggle has taught me a lot, as far as what I need to do to become even ten times better than I ever was, in order to get through. So I can't complain that much."
Indeed, the musician -- along with seasoned vocalist Liz Berlin, multi-instrumentalist Patrick Norman and guitarist Dirk Miller -- has earned a fairly faithful following over the course of the band's 25-year career. It has produced seven studio albums steeped in the group's signature blend of earthy rhythms, percussive melodies and finely layered harmonies.
Rusted Root has been delivering such African-tinged productions since its platinum-selling debut, 1994's When I Woke, which clawed its way to a respectable position on the charts after the album's hit single, "Send Me on My Way," cracked the Billboard Hot 100. But Glabicki and company aren't really sitting back in some kind of suspended animation, holed up in a dark room somewhere waiting for one of the few major labels left with a heartbeat to say, "Hey, guys. So here's the deal: We'd love to sign you. Feel like making a music video?" No, they decided instead to tour relentlessly, spend the last decade or so dropping a few full-length albums (most recently 2012's The Movement) and correct those under the impression that Rusted Root is guilty of riding on the Grateful Dead's coattails.
"There's jam bands, and then, within that community, there's rules and ways to go about being a jam band," Glabicki explains. "I never subscribed to that. I don't come from that. Yet I really like a lot of jam bands. But my music and Rusted Root's music doesn't necessarily fit that landscape of long guitar solos that slowly build to the point where the crowd goes crazy. As a band, we tend to move more percussively, and the energetic movements of our music are very different."
It's easy to see how some fans and critics alike haven't been able to make that distinction. After all, Rusted Root played a recurring role on the nearly long-running H.O.R.D.E. Festival in the '90s, where marathon sets were considered gospel. Still, Glabicki doesn't seem to be spending a whole lot of time reliving those so-called glory days.
"For me, it's like, 'What do we want to do for the next 25 years?'" he says. "That's the actual question that's going through my mind as I write this new record. So it's really giving me a kick in the ass and causing me to be really clear about what I want to say and what I don't want to say."
Rusted Root 8 p.m. Thursday, March 12. Old Rock House, 1200 South Seventh Street. $20 to $25. 314-588-0505.
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