Michael Glabicki is 2 and a half years old. His bloody head is on the pavement. Tiny body still. Pupils pointed skyward. Eyes empty.
The car that nearly crushed him has finally stopped moving, but the pain is a beating drum inside his skull. And the gleaming light that shines beyond his reach is beautiful.
"I was living in Fort Lauderdale," Glabicki remembers more than 40 years later. "And I've always looked upon that incident as something that really opened up some doorways."
Fast-forward to 1994, when 100,000 jam band fans gather for the Grateful Dead in a swirl of tie dye, beads, dreadlocks, enormous clouds of reefer smoke, and top-quality acid. Usually the Deadheads would still be in the parking lot, getting drunk, starting hippie fights, and trading Jerry tapes. But today they've gathered to watch the opening band, Rusted Root.
Band founder, singer, and guitarist Glabicki says, "It was pretty overwhelming at the time. Just a really surreal experience. It was really cool 'cause a lot of the band members came out and watched our performance too."
Rusted Root formed in Pittsburgh in the early '90s. The group's first album, Cruel Sun, released independently, inspired a rabid fan base among college kids in the Northeast, for whom the Root played incessantly.
This fanatic following led to a label deal with Mercury, and Glabicki and crew's major-league debut, When I Woke, which went platinum, surfing the same neo-jam wave as Dave Matthews Band and Blues Traveler. The Root's hit single from that album, "Send Me on My Way," broke the Billboard Top 100 chart at number 72 and it still sees wide licensing today in movies such as Ice Age and Matilda as well as Israeli TV shows and even an Enterprise rental-car commercial.
The band has toured with Santana, opened for Led Zeppelin's Page and Plant reunion, and rocked more festivals than it can remember. But it's been awhile since Rusted Root has seen sunny Miami.
"We've been wanting to come down and spend some time," the frontman says. "It's been sporadic over the years. I think our last time there was with Jewel. We were on tour with her and we ended up going to Key West after to hang out."
This time, Glabicki and company's trip to South Florida will take them to the Virginia Key Grassroots Festival.
In 1945, Virginia Key Beach was established as a "colored-only" hangout. And until 1947, it was accessible only by boat. In those days, a black person had to carry a signed work document just set foot in Miami Beach. To swim there would mean violence and arrest. So Virginia Key was an island of tranquility in a sea of racism. By 1982, though, the beach fell into disrepair and was closed. But it was revitalized, restored, and reopened in 2008.
"That's deep. That's crazy. I can't believe that," Glabicki says, discussing the complicated history of Virginia Key. "I mean, I can believe it historically. But I'm excited that the festival can bring that healing energy to it."
The spiritually minded singer often speaks in those terms. He says things like "I've always been interested in meditation, but I feel like it's getting harder and harder to do that with all the radio waves and cell phones and just the overpopulation of the Earth."
At the same time, though, he recognizes that those same devices are how most music is heard in the digital age. "I enjoy music on my phone as much as everybody else," he admits. "I'm not downing it. I'm just saying it's a sort of reality you have to accept. That's the way it is right now, and I'm just going with the flow."
Glabicki started his band after dropping out of college in his first year and buying a 1972 Guild acoustic guitar at a secondhand store.
"I spent a lot of time being political in high school," he says. "And I went to Nicaragua in 1987 during the Contra war.
"It kinda blew me away what was goin' on in the world, and the blood on our hands as a country, and personally, the blood on my hands through ignorance. That's what inspired me to play music -- to bring a healing energy to the United States. In Nicaragua, music is on every street corner, and poetry too. I wanted to create that here."
So Glabicki began writing songs. He intended to create a band that harnessed music styles from around the world, especially the rhythms of Africa and Latin America.
"There's a lot of African drumming in Pittsburgh. Not so much in the city, but around the university area," he explains. "I just immediately responded to it and fell in love with it and wanted to live in it.
"For the band, it was a prerequisite that the members should know African drumming and Latin rhythms. It was like a meditation that came up through the ground where I was. I didn't really go out and look for it. I kinda just felt it and needed that feeling to write the songs. And I put people around me who could create that energy."
Now, having made a career out of that sound by colonizing and Anglicizing it for his audience, does Glabicki consider it a form of musical imperialism?
"I don't know. I've never thought of it like that. I just think energetically we're all one.
"I kind of view the Earth with this grid on it. And if something comes to you, it's meant to come to you, and you're supposed to use it, and it's supposed to be shared. That's how it comes to me or how I use it.
"I see it. And when I feel it, it feels like it's undeniably my self. So I don't ever go and intellectually look for things that already exist. I feel like the energy is already in the Earth and it comes up through my feet."
Virginia Key Grassroots Festival 2013. Thursday, February 21, to Sunday, February 24. Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, 4020 Virginia Beach Dr., Key Biscayne. Four-day festival passes cost $90 and up via grassrootsstore.org. Call 786-409-5261 or visit virginiakeygrassroots.com.
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