When I Woke by Rusted Root wasn't all that much of a milestone when it was released by Polygram Records in 1994. The band had released Cruel Sun two years earlier with many of the same songs, and a few EPs both before and after did the same. But this CD was significant because without a doubt it contained the most refined versions of these songs, and it was the one that introduced Rusted Root to the mainstream. The version of their single "Send Me On My Way" from this CD has been used in at least three soundtracks, including the animated Ice Age in 2002.
Many fans, in fact, claim that none of Rusted Root's subsequent CDs have ever captured the energy and sound of When I Woke. This is hard to argue, considering the number of instruments and sounds you can hear in any one of its thirteen tracks. The band's sound is Grateful Dead-style jam band but with the voices and instruments familiar to listeners of world music. Anyone looking for an energetic break from "traditional" rock and roll will enjoy this disc.
The CD opens with the simply-titled Drum Trip, over three and a half minutes of perfect percussion--heavy on the bongos--with faded shouts and smooth moans being the only vocals. It puts one in mind of tribal Africa, but with a decidedly jam-band twist.
Then, as it fades to a close, five sharp drum beats lead directly into the acoustic and bass guitars that open Ecstasy, combining with the same drums in a Latin-style rhythm. The lyrics represent the non-traditional, world music feel perfectly as they declare:
Take away your paper and pen
Stacks of money and your foolish grin and go
Get me off this backwards ride,
Take away your greedy way and go
That song cuts off sharply and the next, the hit single Send Me On My Way, replaces it with a smooth acoustic guitar, soon joined by the low bass of a second guitar and the chanted "on my way" that backs up the main vocals and tin whistle. This song is still trying to get the listener out of the world they're trapped in:
I would like to reach out my hand
I may see you, I may tell you to run
Well pick me up with golden hand
I may see you, I may tell you to run
If you like nothing else about this band, you can stop after these three tracks and know you've heard the essense of Rusted Root. But you'd be missing out on the rest of what they can do if you did.
The next track, Cruel Sun, takes a slower, quieter and sometimes eerier approach to the same instruments and themes from the last two. Subtlety is abandoned as we're told:
I remember asking why
There lies aggression,
Separation where there should be love,
Power plays while the people die
A flute and bass guitar take their turns with the lead vocals at the end playing over the now-quiet drums and bass guitar, drawing the song out introspectively in an eight-minute jam. The last couple of minutes bring all the vocals back in a cry of emotion, anger and fear to some unnamed god, over and over: Let it rain and protect us from this cruel sun.
When it ends, neither abruptly nor smoothly, it's replaced by Cat Turned Blue, neither angry nor energetic yet, just a good steady beat backed by bass and a staccato flute melody. That song is in turn replaced by the slow, sad Beautiful People which almost leaves you begging to know just who and what made the songwriter so sorrowful:
I saw the shame inside your addiction,
Waitin' to see what was passed on by
I saw the shame and wondered why
I should live, and die
Leave a note and tell me,
Leave a note and tell me why
But there's very few lyrics to tell us that. Perhaps it's better: surely we all know someone to whom we've wanted to say the same things. When it's replaced by Martyr, a far more energetic and upbeat track, we might be puzzled by the transition until we realize the songwriter has traded places, asking with a trace of irony:
Hey mister can you help me sir,
I plea, plea for your sympathy
Words came bounding astern again....
How long should we play the martyr?
The "fun" feel grows a little more as a harmonica and acoustic guitar give a hoedown feeling to the next song, Rain. The lyrics are sparse, a short poem with a small reference to the "cruel sun" from earlier in the CD:
Build a barn Job and you can
Raise the barn yourself
If you kick the sun down
The male vocalist is replaced by a woman's as the bass and electric guitar create a slow, bluesy feel for Food & Creative Love, replaced halfway through with the male vocalist, a louder chorus behind him, and a faster beat. The lyrics don't change, though, and the meaning is far from hidden this time:
Big hand came and struck me down
Didn't look away and I hit the ground
Blood started to flow...
I wanna heal, yeah
Lick from the wounds of your fear
All I want is food and creative love
Lost In A Crowd has a part-Latin, part-jazz feel and a slower but still positive beat to it. The vocalist seems to be addressing the same person from the previous song:
Invoke the light to shelter you
It's like everybody wants a piece of you
Yesterday, lost in a crowd
I was lost, lost, now I'm found
...and again in the longer, somewhat moodier Laugh As The Sun:
I get so nervous when you leave my world
But I laugh as the sun when the bright morning comes
This track builds to a cry near the end as the singer almost begs, Won't you hold me now? He's eventually interrupted by Infinite Tamboura, a non-lyrical two-minute track which embraces Middle Eastern sounds with a tamboura and hand drums together with soft moans and cries, and gives an unexpected transition to the final track.
Back To The Earth closes the CD perfectly now, opening with only a single drum and acoustic guitar harmony as a chorus wordlessly creates the mood of the first half of the song. The vocalist sings:
Back to the earth I screamed and no one listened to me
Back to the earth I lived and they all followed
Come and see my world
...eventually moving to a faster, higher, more energetic and more tribal sound, drums and chorus only, almost a completely different song with one clear sentence repeated again and again: Free my soul.
I'm certain this wasn't intended as a concept album, but it still weaves a wonderful story. It's a perfect journey as the CD moves from start to finish: the singer challenges the world, challenges the deities watching it, tries to leave, is rescued, and finally returns to "my world" again.
And then the CD starts its journey again, just as we so often do....
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