Rusted Root Brings Its Spontaneity to Syracuse

It’s not unusual for Rusted Root frontman Michael Glabicki to erupt into laughter mid-show. The outburst is likely the result of an unscripted performance by one of his bandmates. The group’s unlimited variation in instrumentation and interpretation mean that even tunes they’ve been belting out since the mid-1990s are spontaneous and energized.

Upstate New York has benefited from the group’s Pittsburgh roots. Rusted Root has given repeat performances at Rochester’s Lilac Festival, the 1911 Tasting Room at the Beak & Skiff, as well as Syracuse’s Westcott Theater, where they will be doing a show December 28. Glabicki says that because of the number of fans in the area, it feels like a second home.

The band’s first big success was their album When I Woke, which went platinum in 1994. The wildly popular single “Send Me on My Way” has been featured television shows, films (including Matilda and Ice Age), and commercials since it was released in 1995. They’ve since released another six studio albums, and one live album.

The group, multi-instrumentalists with unlimited musical influences, uses up to 62 instruments during a show. Founder and frontman Glabicki, plus bassist/vocalist Patrick Norman, and vocalist/percussionist Liz Berlin, have been driving Rusted Root for more than two and a half decades. Guitarist Dirk Miller joined them about 10 years ago. New to the group is drummer Zil Fessler. Says Glabicki, “He’s been with us just a few months, but it feels like many years. He is a kind of mad scientist behind the kit with some really unique feels to the groove.”

The music explores African, Latin American, Hebrew, Native American, bluegrass, and more. As the band’s primary songwriter, Glabicki says, “Sometimes I have a strong idea of how I want the parts to piece together, but I wait and see what the band naturally gravitates toward first.”

Taking an intelligent and creative approach to leadership, he harnesses the power of meditation both to help with songwriting and to enhance performances. “I write my best stuff around water—sometimes in the bath,” he confesses. “The songwriting process really is a meditation. Sometimes I play a riff over and over for weeks, sometimes years, until a song unfolds.”

“The most amazing thing about music is that it can bring to the surface an alternate reality,” he explains. “Meditating before a show can set, intensify, and focus the ‘revealing,’ even though you are not quite sure what the revealing is.”

He goes on to say that acceptance is key to any successful show, “Accept the space you are playing, which sometimes means enjoy the music seeping into your exhaustion. Sometimes people try too hard to act differently from how the feel and miss the train.”

Rusted Root tries to tune in psychically to the vibe in the audience, he says, “It is a communal experience after all. We create the crowd. No two nights are the same. It is fun because I am surprised several times during our show—breaking out in laughter—by what is happening musically. Sometimes I just smile big and think: wow, we’ve never done that before.”

The band’s popularity over more than 20 years has seen them touring alongside acts like Santana, Dave Matthews Band, and The Allman Brothers Band. Glabicki says one of his most memorable experiences was the Robert Plant and Jimmy Page reunion tour.

“Opening up for Plant and Page was a look into another time,” says Glabicki. “At each show some other great artist or band would be backstage to hang out and catch the show. Playing in London at Wembley, back stage someone ran past me, jumped up, and got Robert in a headlock. Security came flying in till they realized it was Van Morrison!”

Glabicki advises that communication is key to creating the harmony and cohesiveness that allow a group to stick together, remain friends, and tap into spontaneous onstage energy. “Harmony in a group occurs only when there are enough boundaries in place for everyone to be happy, calm, and creative; a leader needs to communicate clearly what is happening and not happening on all levels.”