Xavier Rudd’s latest album, Nanna, opens with a steady two-four rhythm on gentle keys. It’s a different breed than the laid-back acoustic strumming that’s become his calling card in the past decade or so, but it’s still that stripped-down musical attitude that listeners come to him to hear. And then, 30 seconds in, the clouds burst and his new band opens lead-off track “Flag” into Rudd’s new world.
His band, the United Nations, is an exercise in the same sort of organic growth exhibited throughout Rudd’s career. Drawing on musical and cultural backgrounds from Australia, Indigenous Australia, South Africa, Samoa, Germany and Papua New Guinea, the band members have jibed perfectly with Rudd’s own vision for positivity and action. There were no auditions, really; Rudd says that everyone came together and blended their sounds perfectly on the first go.
“Everyone comes from a different background, a different culture,” Rudd says, speaking with Scene from his native Australia. “That’s the beautiful thing with the group. The songs are basically roots-reggae songs, but I basically wanted to convey a message of freedom and for people to bring their culture and their musical experience to the table. It’s quite vast, actually, as far as influences go there.”
What Nanna does so well is build off Rudd’s lyrical energy and infuse musical breadth and depth that just couldn’t have been achieve in his former one-man band state (despite Rudd often taking to the stage with a cavalcade of diverse instruments surrounding him). But it’s not like these songs are in-your-face, 180-degree turns from Rudd’s own roots. Take the album’s first single, “Come People" (stream below), which is the sort of simplicity that Rudd has always evinced in his work; nowadays, he’s accentuating his message with horns, backing vocals, interesting percussion devices, and more.
Rudd built a worldwide following since his early twenties as a musician dedicated to confronting environmental abuse, religious indoctrination, the historical mistreatment of indigenous Australians and other human rights causes. He planted his flag as a socially conscious musician most visibly on his 2005 breakout, Food in the Belly, which featured the mesmerizing “Messages.”
It’s clear that Rudd has always recognized and respected the connection between social action and music. He’s an outspoken singer and speaker, one who demands to confront corporate-backed environmental disasters and human inertia. Those threads have been present throughout his catalog, landing decidedly on Nanna. Each album has been an adventure for him and his international fan base.
In 2010, Rudd cut an album with duo Izintaba — bassist Tio Moloantoa and percussionist Andile Nqubezelo. It’s a different beast than his full-bodied band of 2015, but Rudd says that, rhythmically, Koonyum Sun shares certain traits with what he’s doing now. In his canon, it’s a complex album that brings fresh instrumentation to the forefront of Rudd’s songwriting.
Between then and now, Rudd released his most critically acclaimed album to date, Spirit Bird, a collection of simple riverside tunes rooted heavily in Rudd’s spiritual outlook on life. Songs like “Spirit Bird” and “Follow the Sun” fall back into an ethereal mood, where the singer and listener can reflect on the world around them. It’s a peaceful album.
Now, though, his focus is on the band.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Rudd says. The album was mixed by Errol Brown at Tuff Gong Studios, which was founded by Bob Marley in Kingston, Jamaica, lending Rudd’s album another global marker.
There’s a great run in the new album that comes about halfway through the tracklisting, beginning with the jaunty “Rusty Hammer.” It’s one of the most upbeat tunes on the album, with some terrific flute accents and a danceable breakdown halfway through the song.
“Rainbow Serpent” and “Creancient” pair together, in a way. The two songs came from individual spiritual experiences Rudd encountered in northwestern Australia (“Rainbow Serpent”) and Peru (“Creancient”). Lyrically here, Rudd is bringing the listener back to a very Old World aesthetic — the presence of the Old Man and the Great Mother throughout our planet.
Much of the album deals with “our natural connection to the Earth,” Rudd says. “Through religious conditioning and domination, people have been led away from that. It is a little bit of a call to action. There’s too much division even in the environmental world. If we actually work together to save the planet, we could really, really make a difference.”
As far as the live show goes, the United Nations will certainly present a departure from Rudd’s past tours. The last time he was in Cleveland, he was still working most of the songs off Spirit Bird, surrounding himself with didgeridoos and percussion kits. This time around, a whole host of spirits onstage will transform the energy into different shapes and moods.
“It’s nice to bounce off each other,” Rudd says. “I can channel the energy from everyone else. There’s a lot of spirit onstage compared to the past, and that changes things considerably.
“Spiritually, emotionally, musically: Everything was different,” Rudd says. “It’s definitely the most unique thing I’ve ever done.”
Xavier Rudd and the United Nations, 8 p.m. Thursday, May 7, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $30 ADV/$35 DOS, beachlandballroom.com