Rusted Root's music may conjure images of twirling, patchouli-packing hippie folk enjoying an eclectic global-village vibe, but the outfit's origins are pure "Summer of '69" Americana. Band co-founder Patrick Norman says that he's no longer motivated by the prospect of jumping groupies--in his words, "That was a product of my fifteen-year-old mind"--but he concedes that he first picked up his trusty six-string because, well, chicks dig guitars. Moreover, Rusted Root's big break wasn't playing the Fillmore with Jerry and the Dead but participating in a battle-of-the-bands contest. In Pittsburgh.
Norman, who grew up in Philadelphia, first gravitated toward music as a child. "When I was in fourth grade, my mother told me to pick an instrument to play--and I wanted to play the drums," he remembers. "On the day we were signing up for instruments, there were different lines for each instrument, and I ran for the drum line--but when I got to the counter, the lady said, 'I'm sorry, we're full.' I told my mom I didn't want to play anything but the drums, but she told me I had to pick another instrument, so I chose the trumpet. But I quickly got burned out on it. I wanted to play Miles Davis, and the grade-school band was always playing songs like the theme from Rocky. I didn't want to play anymore, but my mom said I had to keep playing an instrument."
His musical enthusiasm level rose considerably a few years later. "I was watching Saturday Night Live one night when I was in high school, and the musical guest was Bruce Springsteen," he says. "I was into Clarence Clemons because he was the horn player, like me, so I was watching Clarence, when all of a sudden this fan jumped out of the audience, ran right past Clarence Clemons and jumped on Bruce Springsteen. And I thought, 'Guitar is the instrument.'"
At the University of Pittsburgh, Norman became a jazz-performance major. But he changed directions in 1990. "I was performing my piano juries at the music building, and my friend Jim Donovan was jamming with a couple of people"--specifically, high-school pals Michael Glabicki and Liz Berlin. "They were going to play a show, but they were having trouble with their bass player, so they asked if I would sit in. I didn't play bass, but I thought, how hard can it be? I rented a bass and went over to their rehearsal space, and we all kind of clicked."
The lineup, which featured Glabicki on lead vocals, Berlin singing backup, Donovan drumming and Norman keeping up the low end, practiced for a few weeks before making a tape that got Rusted Root into the aforementioned band battle. The combo came in fourth, but the exposure the competition provided helped build a local audience that eventually snapped up over 100,000 copies of Cruel Sun, an independently produced full-length. The subsequent arrival of John Buynak, who provides the act with an underlying twitter of flute and pennywhistle, and Jim DiSpirito, an ethnomusicology student credited with focusing more attention on percussion, helped solidify Rusted Root's sound. (A third recruit, background vocalist Jenn Wertz, is no longer with the band.)
On 1994's When I Woke, an EP made for the Mercury imprint, beats are very much in the forefront: The disc kicks off with a three-and-a-half-minute drum solo. What follows are songs characterized by a cheery, danceable worldbeat groove and a jungle-dense mesh of strings, flute melodies, curious human howls and tribal pounding courtesy of each member of the group. The devices used tend toward the exotic: They include the dumbek, the log drum, the riq, the tabla, the talking drum, wood clappers, granite blocks, agogo bells, a Tibetan meditation bowl, a Chinese dholak, a djembe and something referred to in the liner notes as "fetish bells."
The jaunty cacophony produced by these noisemakers helped When I Woke sell over 1.7 million copies. But instead of attempting to duplicate this sound on their next release, the Rusted Root contributors experimented with their sound, much to the chagrin of many of their boosters. Although their next album, 1996's Remember, retained Rusted Root's characteristic musical eclecticism, its tone was much more subdued than before; electric guitars were mainly replaced by acoustics, and manic dance tracks gave way to ballads. (When moving to the album, hippies had to sway rather than spin.) As a result, Remember was not as commercially successful as its predecessor. But Norman doesn't regret the risks taken. "It's always exciting to do new things," he says.
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Rusted Root, which hit stores last November, is peppier than Remember, but it's a far cry from the exuberant merriment, chaotic drumming and nonsense lyrics that marked "Send Me on My Way," Rusted Root's most popular single to date. In place of the Latin and African rhythms that were once Rusted Root's sonic signature, the new album offers Indian undertones that reflect Donovan's recent studies with percussionist Zakir Hussain. ("Zakir is like a huge rock star in India," Norman says.) Glabicki's distinctive howl has tamed down over time, and the tunes are more structured than the wild rallying calls that launched the act. "With Rusted Root, we put our hands in writing pop music," Norman confirms. "We wanted to concentrate on being more precise songwriters and to develop as craftsmen. Pop sometimes has a negative vibe to it, but there's something cool about being able to craft a song."
Despite this shift in approach, Rusted Root continues to be lumped together with the Grateful Dead, Phish, the Dave Matthews Band and other combos it sounds nothing like. Norman insists he isn't bothered by the comparisons, since he respects these groups. "I feel pretty secure in that we're a unique-sounding band," he goes on. "As for the jam aspect, we're not just a jam band. We're able to write three-minute pop songs and then stretch them out when we perform. We're pretty far from being hippies." Sounding particularly Seinfeld-ian, he adds, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."
There's nothing wrong with Norman's early rock-star aspirations, either--especially since many of them have come true. Norman says his mother and father remained skeptical about his career choice until one day when "I was back in Philly and I introduced my mom to Robert Plant. That's when my parents decided I was doing all right."
Rusted Root. 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 23, Paramount Theatre, 1631 Glenarm Place, $26, 303-534-8336.