April 9 was a momentous day for Rusted Root: not only did it mark their first Boston appearance in almost four years, but it was also a celebration of the release of their fourth album, Welcome to My Party.
Riding high off of a short set that afternoon at the Virgin Records Megastore on Newbury Street, the Pittsburgh-based sextet exuded energy. Pulsing tribal rhythms, delicate vocal interplay and uninhibited dancing captivated and inspired an already animated crowd.
Formed in Pittsburgh in 1988 after front man Mike Glabicki (then still in high school) returned from a trip to South America, the band self-released their first album, Cruel Sun, in 1990. With their consistently formidable live performances and their support of such groups as Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace and Amnesty International, the band gained a faithful grassroots following. With the smash hit “Send Me On My Way,” their 1994 album, When I Woke, was certified multi-platinum.
After two albums, three EP’s, a handful of film and television soundtracks and tours with Phish, the Grateful Dead and Dave Matthews, the group decided to take some time off. During the hiatus, most members pursued other musical ventures. Liz Berlin, Glabicki and Jenn Wenz embarked on solo endeavors while other members joined different bands. When they reunited and began working on Welcome to My Party, band members had clearer heads, more diverse musical experience and a commitment to focus on the essence of their new songs.
Berlin described the band as transitioning from its “democratic” origins to a more conventional focus on singer/songwriter Glabicki’s vision for the band.
They set the tone for an intense night by opening with the evocative “Voodoo”—from the band’s 1996 album Remember —showcasing lead singer Mike Glabicki’s unmistakable whooping. As the concert progressed, each band member rotated instruments again and again, eventually taking full advantage of the instrumental smorgasbord that had taken so long to set up.
As John Buynak switched from mandolin to penny whistle to tom-toms, Liz Berlin alternated from cowbells to electric guitar to a tin washboard and the textures of the night’s sounds became increasingly richer. The only constant in the show, besides Glabicki’s unique vocals, was bassist Patrick Norman. His dynamic playing was interrupted only briefly when he switched to drums for one piece, but his euphoric grin was an enjoyable thread running through a shape-shifting performance.
Other highlights from the evening included “Food and Creative Love,” starting off with Wertz’s sexy vocals and building up to a frantic chant. The mellower “Back to the Earth,” featured a tribal call-and-response between Glabicki and other band members, with the audience joining in. About three-quarters of the way through the two-hour show, drummer Jim Donovan started a percussion improvisation that went on for over ten minutes, drawing in one band member after another until everyone on stage was part of one massive rhythmic organism. The concert peaked, however, with Root’s encore set, starting off with Mike Glabicki’s soulful acoustic solo, “Scattered” and including, of course, their smash hit, “Send Me On My Way.”
Unhappily, it does not bode well for the band’s new album that each of these high points were hits from previous recordings. Selections from Welcome to My Party accented the band’s departure from its traditional sound. The funky, upbeat “Too Much” and the infectious but shallow title track from the album are both more polished and restrained. The new songs deviates from the crunchy sound and lack of inhibition that characterized Root’s earlier work. With the bluegrass-influenced “Blue Diamonds,” Glabicki’s lyrics abandon the intriguing lyrical obscurity of earlier songs. Composed as a “love song to an angel” from a childhood memory of Glabicki’s, the deliberate and lucid lyrics lack the subtlety that made earlier songs so deliciously mysterious and exotic.
The hiatus has produced a more finessed and cultivated product, and Rusted Root has a new sound, the elusive aim of every band with a vision. It’s just too bad that the sound conflicts with the liberated, innovative mystique for which their fans love them most.