When Rusted Root Was an Arena Rock Band
This one time in the 1990s, a roots rock hippie band from Pittsburgh became a big-time arena rock act.
(Sometimes I cover just an album here on “The Album of Record.” However, the last couple of weeks as I’ve been writing about certain bands, it ended up being more of a career retrospective. That probably makes sense for bands like Hum and Rusted Root.)
As I look back on the emergence of Rusted Root, it doesn’t get any less surprising. This isn’t an insult. I was a big fan of the band when they burst onto the music scene, but in many ways, Rusted Root feels like a one-hit-wonder. Again, not an insult because in order to be a one-hit wonder, you have to have a hit. And “Send Me On My Way” is such a ubiquitous song that it overshadows the rest of the band’s material. That said, for every 10 fans that consider them a one-hit wonder, there are probably one or two who stuck around and remained loyal to the band. Not all one-hit-wonders are created equally.
When I think of Rusted Root, I think of bands that had one big hit and defied their genre nichiness to become bigger. The traditional one-hit wonders from the 90s are bands that didn’t go on to have longer careers. Does anyone know what Eagle-Eye Cherry is up to? 4 Non Blondes’ frontwoman Linda Perry went on to have a big career in music but as a songwriter and producer. She famously went on to write the Christina Aguilera megahit “Beautiful,” as well as songs for Pink. But other more college-rock bands that had one hit, maintained a core audience and were able to add to it with a big hit.
I think about Blues Traveler after “Runaround.” I’ve seen Big Head Todd and the Monsters at festivals in the last five years. I wonder if they’ve ever played a show where they didn’t play “Bittersweet”? O.A.R. is quietly legendary, but for more surface-level music listeners, they’d only recognize the big radio hit, “Shattered (Turn the Car Around).” Another comp for me is Blind Melon. “No Rain” was a bonanza, and most people dropped off after that, but “Galaxie” from their next record Soup is phenomenal. Of course, Shannon Hoon passes away, and the Blind Melon story goes unwritten. In that lens, I find Rusted Root’s ability to play a basketball arena in the 1990s that much more of an anomaly of the period.
But there I was with some friends at the CSU Convocation Center in Cleveland, watching Rusted Root and opener Donnie Iris. Iris was a 70s rocker who had a few hits as a solo artist. Most people know him for “Ah! Leah!” and “Love is Like a Rock.” When he ended his set that night with the latter song, and the call and response of “love is like a rock” got tiresome, our entire section might have been singing “f*** you, suck my c***” and laughing our asses off. We didn’t mean anything by it. We just wanted to be vulgar, and it rhymed.
And then Rusted Root took the stage.
“Send Me on My Way” is where you must start with Rusted Root. You can go back further, but I wasn’t there for those legends. Speaking of legends, did you know or even remember that Rusted Root played Woodstock ‘99? My friends and I had all heard of the years they played The Great Blue Heron Music Festival at a farm in upstate New York, but none of us were there for it. We went to later festivals hoping for some magic of our own, but that comet never passed through again. Still, the Blue Heron was awesome, so let’s not let that go by. I’ve probably seen Donna the Buffalo a dozen times. And the year that I saw Southern Culture On the Skids there was an all-time highlight. To this day, I love their song, presumably about fried chicken, called “8 Piece Box.”
Back to Rusted Root and “Send Me On My Way.” In the history of music, it has to be one of the unlikeliest hits. I wasn’t around for 1983 when “Come On Eileen” was the 13th biggest hit single of the year in a field that included “Every Breath You Take,” and “Billie Jean,” to go along with “Maneater.” To think it beat out “Sexual Healing,” “Africa,” “Electric Avenue,” “Let’s Dance,” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” is astonishing. Granted “Send Me On My Way” didn’t make it that high in the 1994 Billboard charts dominated by “The Sign” by Ace of Base, and “I Swear” by All-4-One. I’m just saying that “Send Me On My Way” has many more Spotify plays than “The Sign” or “I Swear” these days. Talk about a phenomenal year for a group though. Ace of Base had “The Sign,” “All That She Wants,” and “Don’t Turn Around” all in the Top 10 that year. I can make fun of Ace of Base all I want - and I will - but they shouldn’t care - and probably do not.
As an aside, can we talk about one of the most cynical hits from that year? “All for Love” was a song written by Bryan Adams, Mutt Lange, and orchestral composer Michael Kamen for The Three Musketeers soundtrack. Bryan Adams recruited Sting and Rod Stewart to sing the song with him. That by itself would be cringe-inducing, but don’t forget the context. This was the movie and music industries, both trying to go back to the same honeypot that worked two years earlier in 1991. Remember?
Bryan Adams and those same co-composers wrote one of the biggest songs ever to feature parentheses at the beginning of a song title, “(Everything I Do) I Do it For You,” for the film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and had a movie-themed music video. That song was number one in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada (duh,) Denmark, Europe combined, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the United States. It currently has 462 million Spotify plays. “All For Love” appears on Spotify for three of the biggest artists in music history and has just over 163 million plays.
The movies weren’t even close either, despite essentially trying to pull off the exact same formula. Robin Hood did $390 million worldwide at the box office. The Three Musketeers did $53 million. Robin Hood gets a critic score of 50% and an audience score of 72% on Rotten Tomatoes. The Three Musketeers received 30% from critics and 62% from audiences. Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, and Chris O’Donnell are not Kevin Costner, Alan Rickman, Morgan Freeman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Christian Slater. But musically, where less can sometimes be more, Bryan Adams singing alone for a movie with a bigger singular star and a great supporting cast was better than trying to pack all the stars in.
Back to “Send Me On My Way”
The song “Send Me On My Way” is Rusted Root’s top two tracks on Spotify if you include a live version with over 5 million plays. The main version? Nearly 370 million plays. Compared to “Run-Around” by Blues Traveler’s 110 million? Uh. Yeah. Smashing Pumpkins’ 1979 has 440 million, but none of their other tracks get to “Send Me On My Way” levels. However, the drop-off for Rusted Root’s catalog after that in terms of popularity is precipitous. “Ecstasy” has over 4 million, and a cover of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” has over 3 million.
I don’t remember how I heard about Rusted Root, but it might have been one of the few bands that I got from my older sister. When she graduated from high school and went off to college, all of a sudden I was hearing about different bands. I was able to get in early on The Dave Matthews Band and Rusted Root in my high school as a result. I thought “Send Me on My Way” was a great song, but it’s other things about Rusted Root that made me a fan.
I’m such a sucker for emo songs and ballads. For my money, it was the eight-minute song that followed the hit that sold me. “Cruel Sun” is a Craig song through and through. It’s delicate and sparse at the beginning. It’s urgent and emotional. It’s a monumental builder of a tune that spends the last two minutes just delivering over and over. The band is pounding. The percussion is syncopated on the off beats. The harmonies are sprawling as the band belts over and over, “Let it rain, and protect us from this cruel sun.” I have been listening again this week and it holds up.
The album goes back and forth between these types of emotional tunes and the bouncier, funkier roots rock. “Cat Turned Blue” is one of those and personally I don’t have any time for it. It’s kind of like when I talk about Blues Traveler, “Run-Around” is a great song and some of the funky jams are ok, but it’s “Look Around” and “The Mountains Win Again” that made me fall in love. For Rusted Root, it’s “Beautiful People,” “Back to the Earth” along with “Cruel Sun.”
“Rain” sounds too much like a hoedown for my tastes. “Martyr” sounds like a tribal version of a Jimmy Buffett song, and in case you didn’t know, Buffett is someone whom I’ve blocked on Spotify. It’s a strange thing about Rusted Root for me. I don’t hate those other songs, per se. I just know that without the ballady ones, I would be out completely on a band like Rusted Root.
I was elated when their follow-up to When I Woke came out in 1996. That album opened with more compact hit-like songs “Faith I Do Believe,” and “Heaven.” My favorite track on the album was “Sister Contine.” I think it might be one of the best rock songs the band ever wrote, but I must be out on an island as it’s not even close to the most popular song on that album, let alone tracking with the band’s biggest hits overall. They went into the studio with Jerry Harrison from The Talking Heads. He is known for working with bands like Violent Femmes, Live, Crash Test Dummies, The Verve Pipe, and No Doubt.
And although I enjoyed Remember very much, I wonder if it didn’t serve to alienate some of their initial audience in the long run. It’s instructive that the biggest songs on Remember are foot stompers like “Virtual Reality,” which was featured in the film Twister.
Anyway, back to the concert. I looked up the setlist because I couldn’t remember. I remember standing up the whole show and it being a contrast between fans who just wanted to watch and the more HORDE-like fans that wanted to get down in a way that only crunchy white people can. I can’t find any footage of the show I saw, but I found this great video of “Cruel Sun” from 1995. They were such an electrifying band on stage, which might be an ironic thing to say about a band that leans into many organic sounds.
Fast forward to 2002 and Rusted Root released Welcome to Our Party and while it won’t go down in history as a much-needed record from a vital band, it helped deliver one more must-have Rusted Root track, at least for my tastes. Sure, Rusted Root isn’t that active a band anymore. And they’re certainly not selling out arenas anymore. And yeah, it’s weird to try and talk about it today because there’s no way to contextualize Rusted Root the same way you can with grunge or alternative metal like Tool, Korn, and System of a Down who also defied logic in becoming gigantic. Those were outliers in an entire genre-level movement. It is sort of ironic that the last album before the “Best of Compilation” was entitled Welcome to Our Party after most felt like for Rusted Root the party was already over.
I haven’t listened to The Movement from 2012. Before I started writing this week, I didn’t even know it existed, to be perfectly honest. I’ll rectify that, but for me, the end of the story is this incredible song that most people didn’t hear. It’s ironic as a song title for a band that was fading out, but it’s a great song just the same.
“Welcome to My Party”
Also, just FYI, I created a Spotify playlist that shows what I love about the band’s music.