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The Jamband Velvet Underground: Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit

by Alan Paul on May 09, 2014

In February 1992, the reunited Dixie Dregs arrived at New York’s Ritz and I was excited to check them out. Though I had always considered their music somewhat sterile if brilliantly constructed, I recognized Steve Morse as a stellar guitarist. So as a young music magazine editor, I was anxious to expand my musical scope and appreciation and Steve was someone that I thought I should better understand. Publicist Marc Pucci pushed me to get there early to see the opening act—the oddly named Aquarium Rescue Unit.

He assured me that the newly reformed Capricorn Records was very excited about the band, led by a longtime Atlanta cult hero, Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.). Still pinching myself over living in New York City, working at a major music magazine and having publicists ask me to go to shows, I earnestly arrived at the Ritz close to start time in order to check out this band with an open mind but with few expectations. They had just started when I walked into the half-filled Midtown Manhattan ballroom and strolled right up to the lip of the stage, immediately astounded by what was unfolding.

A skinny redheaded guy with a beard was hunched over a Stratocaster, dispensing lightning fast licks that danced the razor’s edge I love, where everything could fall apart at any moment, though his sure-handed playing and obvious blues rooting made that highly unlikely. To his right, a handsome young man was grinning, eyes cast toward the sky as he worked a six-string bass with the same mix of skill and abandon, sometimes scatting along to the notes he played. On the other side of the stage, a dark-haired guy with bushy eyebrows was blasting out supercharged bluegrass licks on a Mandocaster, a mandolin in the shape of a mini Telecaster. A brilliant drummer was laying down beats from enough angles to replicate at least two percussionists. Overseeing the whole thing was a crazy little man with a handlebar moustache playing some kind of demented short-scale instrument I would later learn he called a Chazoid. He sang like a bastard child of Bobby Bland and Hazel Dickens and occasionally played wicked, inspired licks. This was obviously the Colonel. He was clearly the ringmaster of this nutty circus, which radiated light and the spark of life and was hilarious without being a joke.

Questions bounced around my racing mind: Who was he? What was this? Why wasn’t everyone talking about this fabulous band? I pushed them all down and out because I wanted to stay in the moment. I’d like to tell you how the rest of the crowd reacted, but I have no idea. I wasn’t looking around, solely focused on the stage, experiencing something that I have just a handful of times—musical nirvana that hit me in the head, heart and guts at the same time and was all the more powerful for being so completely unexpected.

After the show, I watched the musicians break down their own gear and caught guitarist Jimmy Herring’s attention, introduced myself and told him I’d meet him downstairs. I had been invited to a meet and greet, which I had originally planned on stopping by just long enough to see whether or not they had free beer, but my plans had changed.

In a little room downstairs, I chatted a bit with Bruce and spoke at length with Jimmy. We were both somewhat starstruck. Jimmy was thrilled that a Guitar World editor had so enjoyed his playing. I was gobsmacked that someone like him cared what I thought, and convinced that I had just discovered a major talent. I was right, of course, and as silly as Jimmy’s excitement seemed then and still seems now, it was revealing about both his nature and the group’s circumstances.

“We were making $92 a week and sleeping in one room,” Hampton told me recently. “After two years, we got two rooms and we were so ecstatic, we had a celebration. There were five of us in a Chevrolet van with 400,000 miles on it. How we did it, I’ll never know, but I never had more fun or made greater music than I did during that run.”

No wonder Jimmy was so happy that I had taken note of this brilliant musical circus—they were playing for love and for each other and I was an outsider acknowledging their instincts were right, that they were onto something. There is no greater satisfaction for an artist than some affirmation that their struggling is not for naught, something they had received precious little of outside their Atlanta base.

This incarnation of the band played together for about two years. Bassist Oteil Burbridge and drummer Jeff Sipe (then called Apt. Q258) joined Bruce about three years earlier. Hampton originally hired Oteil as a drummer. “We played about three gigs and then he picked up the bass one day and I said, ‘That’s what you’ll be playing from now on,” Hampton says with a laugh. “He was a good drummer, but he was like the greatest bassist I had ever heard.”

All the musicians came to Hampton as virtuosos. He opened up their boundaries. More accurately, he obliterated the very concept of boundaries.

“Old-timers would tell me that Oteil was playing too much, but the song was always there,” says Hampton. “He never lost that. And he was 21 and full of this amazing energy, so why not let him be free? Then, I told him, whatever he wanted to do, do the opposite.”

But isn’t that a contradictory concept—be free and do the opposite of what you want to do? “Yes!” says Hampton. “That’s it.”

If that contradiction makes perfect sense to you, then you are well on your way to understanding Hampton’s Zambi musical approach, which Burbridge sums up in a few words: “Bruce was our ‘professor of out.’”

The Colonel’s educational role was obvious, but to this day he cringes at being called a mentor, even after 20 more years discovering great young players.

“I learn as much from them as they do from me,” he says. “What made me unusual was that everyone my age had either quit or made it. No one was playing clubs and putting together new bands on the cheap like that.”

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