The Dream of the ‘90s Was Alive in Oneonta With Rusted Root

There was definitely something magical in the air in Oneonta on Friday night, with summer being officially in full swing, and the help of the Oneonta Theatre, where not just one but two foot-stomping bands opened up for ‘90s icons Rusted Root.

Starting right on time, prepared for a long night of diverse music, Soco Mojo with special guest and local legend, John Scarpulla took the stage. According to a fan/friend of Scarpulla’s, tonight’s gig was their first public appearance together. But boy, that was not apparent from their tight sound. Scarpulla has, in the past, played mainly solo or duo acts, which always allow you a glimpse into this singer/songwriter/guitarist’s musical mind. However his talent was demonstrated just as much when playing alongside Sojo Mojo, another local act based out of Oneonta.

The band is comprised of a Hammond organ, electric guitar, bass, drum kit, and two percussion sets, with one of the percussionists (John Banks) doubling as a flutist. The one issue with having so many players on stage was that if you were sitting on the left side of the theater, vocalist and Hammond player Conor Murphy was so far over to the left that you could not see him. This  was especially odd when he started singing, and you couldn’t see where the voice was coming from, but the sound came through just fine, so that somewhat made up for not being able to see him.

Bassist Bill Youngs really drove the band with his steady rolling rhythms, while young drummer Sebastian Green and percussionist Andrew Yerdon provided great creative back beats. Scarpulla’s voice kept getting more and more powerful as the night wore on, which blended quite nicely with Soco Mojo. Scarpulla mentioned that the group had CDs for sale, and for those who couldn’t afford to pay, he offered to throw them a CD for free! After doing a bit of scatting, Scarpulla introduced the band, then walked off stage while the rest of the band was still playing, allowing them to strut their own stuff for a bit before finishing off the set. Being that this was their first public appearance together, this band’s energy can only go up from here.

Next to perform was none other than ’s March Madness contest runners-up Big Leg Emma! For the band’s first number, acoustic guitarist/vocalist Steve Johnson sounded particularly Rusted Root-esque, with his tremolo-like style of picking. Johnson’s voice was reminiscent of Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, John McCrea of Cake, and former Yonder Mountain String Band frontman, Jeff Austin.  The wah-wah pedal and swirly effects used by mandolinist/vocalist/percussionist Charity Nuse were quite unusual (and awesome!) in terms of their usage on the mandolin, and her voice was lovely and subtle. The whole band was super tight, especially on their third number, during which the acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and bass were totally locked into each other in the best possible way. Each of their songs had a definite beginning, middle, and end, yet they also seemed to be able to simultaneously segue from one song to the next seamlessly.

The band covered a couple of tunes that initially seemed like unlikely choices for a bluegrassy band to cover, but, believe it or not, they both seemed to lend themselves nicely to the genre – namely the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”. Towards the end of their set, drummer Corey Kertzie played a super crisp drum solo, and then invited the percussionists from Soco Mojo to join him, along with bassist Miguel Morales. In this case, a little collaboration amongst bands went a long way, they sounded great together. For their last number, the true appeal of Big Leg Emma shined through with their ability to inspire a dance party! Charity reached down into the crowd and hoisted up some ladies to join her on the front of the stage to dance, and then slyly slipped back to her position as mandolinist/vocalist and continued to rock out with the band, leaving the dance party still happening in the front part of the stage. This band was the perfect choice of bands to open for Rusted Root, as they were able to get the audience energized enough to be able to keep up with Rusted Root for the remainder of the evening!

The headliner of the night was Rusted Root, a Pittsburgh-based band whom defy genres. There was a nostalgic energy pulsing throughout the Oneonta Theatre, with fans psyched and ready to hear some of their old favorites, as well as see what the band has been up to recently. Having been playing together since the ‘90s, and touring relentlessly whenever they are not in the studio, the band is currently working on a new album due to come out next year. The band hopes to be able to record and produce independently with no record label. In order to accomplish this task, Rusted Root has started an fundraising effort, in the hopes of raising $25,000 from fans to help fund their album. Their last album The Movement (2012) was also funded through a fan-funding campaign called “Fortunate Freaks Unite! We Are Rusted Root”.

While the band obviously played songs off their latest and upcoming albums, they also threw in a bunch of their classics. At the very beginning of the set, before the lights even came up, percussionist Preach Freedom started playing drums that sounded so flawless that it was impossible to tell whether it was being played live, or if it was a recording! Opening with “Martyr”, a particularly energizing song to get people moving early on in the set, the band then moved into another classic, “Lost in a Crowd”, which was played with more of an electric sound than usual. Next, the band went into a couple of their new tunes, which had a different style and feel than their older material, including heavier bass and an overall increase in the level of “rock” within the music. Sensing that the audience was craving some more familiar tunes, Rusted Root pulled out an old school “Heaven”, then jammed out with a super long intro into “Laugh as the Sun”. The build-up leading into “Laugh as the Sun” created a nice effect, because it was tough to tell just from what they were playing what song they were going to go into – that kind of suspense seemed to get the crowd revved up. Next up was probably one of the more unique mash-ups I’ve heard in a while: “Cat Turned Blue”, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious”, and Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”!

Effectively interspersing their newer material with their classics throughout the rest of their one-set show, featuring a twangy version of “Rain” (heavy on the washboard) and a Middle Eastern-sounding “In Our Sun” featuring a simple three-note flute. Lead vocalist/guitarist Michael Glabicki did a Matthew McConaughey impression by quoting “All right, all right, all right,” they then played “Send Me On My Way”, one of their more popular numbers. For this one, electric guitarist Dirk Miller switched over to the recorder and Preach Freedom switched from his drum kit to hand drums. Ending their set on this soaring note, they encored with a familiar but possibly new tune, and then finished off with a particularly high-energy version of “Ecstasy”, which began with a very Santana-esque intro involving just the electric guitar and bass played masterfully by Patrick Norman.

The Oneonta Theatre was definitely on fire with this show, including three amazingly talented yet diverse bands. Starting off the night with the funky blues rock of Soco Mojo joined by John Scarpulla, moving on to the Americana bluegrass stylings of Big Leg Emma, to the world rock jamming of Rusted Root. It was definitely the place to be to enjoy a wide range of music in a single night. Concert goers enjoyed running into a ton of familiar faces who came out from the woodwork to enjoy some nostalgic music from the ‘90s, and get your dance on! Be sure to check out all of these bands, and visit Rusted Root’s indiegogo site if you are interested in and able to contribute to the production of their next album.

big leg emmaJohn ScarpullaOneonta Theatrerusted rootSoco Mojo