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

by Alan Paul on May 09, 2014

Hampton had been making music in Atlanta since the late-‘60s. His Hampton Grease Band drew the attention of Duane Allman, who became a friend and supporter and got the group signed to Capricorn, who sold the contract to Columbia. Hampton says that their 1971 album Music To Eat is the label’s second worst-selling album ever. He spent the next 20 years working on his own and with The Late Bronze Age until he started putting together the ARU.

Hampton says that what he offered his young protégés was guidance. “They were already great when they joined the band, but what I did was try to break their boundaries,” he says. “I’d say: ‘Don’t be a fusion drummer or a blues bass player. Discover who you are.’ It was thrilling to discover all this together, and we went places that no one had ever been before— and very few people saw it.”

While their own shows may have rarely grown beyond large clubs, ARU played on the early H.O.R.D.E. tours and became prime influences on many bands and musicians, notably Phish, Widespread Panic and Derek Trucks, who was an honorary member by the time he could have been bar mitzvah-ed. ARU were the jamband Velvet Underground—a group whose influence vastly overwhelmed their commercial success. Most of the members went on to make their marks: Oteil joined The Allman Brothers Band in 1997; Herring clocked in time with The Allman Brothers Band, Phil Lesh & Friends and The Dead, and is currently a member of Widespread Panic; Sipe has toured with Leftover Salmon, Trey Anastasio Band and a range of other acts. Matt Mundy, their Mandocaster player, suddenly quit the group in 1993 and gave up music. He plays again, though not publicly. Hampton has consistently put together great new bands, including the Fiji Mariners and the Codetalkers. Nothing in his approach to music has really changed.

“You either leave essence or you don’t,” he says. “You either capture the moment or you don’t, and you know at every show if you missed it or hit it, but you don’t know when it’s coming or where it comes from. That elusiveness is what keeps all artists going. But in the ARU, I think we only had one or two bad gigs in four years. Every night, it was on and we would push each other to the outer limits. We sometimes played six or eight-hour gigs for 99 cents admission. In other words, we were a mental illness group.”

Anyone who heard this brand of illness either fell in love or scratched his or her head and walked away. But even as the band was earning converts, they were cracking under the strain of the road. Mundy’s departure cost them more than a unique musical voice. “He was the glue,” says Hampton, who quit touring himself within a year. The band continued for a few years with a couple of different singers before everyone started drifting off to other gigs. They have reunited for brief tours and one-off gigs over the years, most recently at last year’s Christmas Jam in Asheville, N.C.

At that first show, I eventually said good- bye to Jimmy, who had to load his own gear onto a trailer and push on, and went back upstairs to hear the Dregs. The playing was spectacular, but I couldn’t quite focus on the music. It was exemplary but it existed in the known universe. That no longer seemed like quite enough.

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Finally, a band less interesting than the Velvet Underground.

By Pookums - 05/09/14

Fuck off, Pookums. ARU FOREVER!!!

By Zambified - 05/10/14

ARU is the truth. Music unbound.

By Smokemike - 05/10/14

Eat a dick pookums

By tstrick54 - 05/10/14

If you enjoyed this article, check out the Hampton documentary “Basically Frightened” - $2.99 rental from Amazon… although it’s worth buying.  Really well done.

By Ron - 05/10/14

After discovering them way too late, I would tell people they’re the best “bar band” of all-time.

By Mean Bunny - 05/10/14

Saw them at least 40 times.  Shit was amazing and I’m definitely lucky to have “been there”~~~Otis

By Otis - 05/10/14

The ARU live album on Capricorn records is one (in my opinion) of the greatest live albums of all time.

By rabbit - 05/10/14

Great article. I believe the unnamed band member in the photo is percussionist Count M’Butu.

By pete - 05/10/14

ARU achieved a level of musicianship with a reckless cohesiveness, musicality and humor that was on a level at or even beyond Zappa…

By echoman - 05/10/14

I discovered them at the 2004 New Orleans Jazz Fest. I was having a beer at the Ugly Dog before heading back to my hotel and the very inebriated and horny couple next to me offered me a ticket to the Howlin’ Wolf to see them. I stood there like a fool,with my mouth wide open for a full 2 hrs. and have been a LOYAL follower ever since

By Mark Seitz - 05/10/14

I saw them as much as I could in ‘92-93 with the original band and they were always killing. Much like Phish was at the time. The reunion shows they did a few years back were great too but Matt Mundy will be missed.  Having said that, if I had a choice now between seeing Phish or a reunited ARU it would ALWAYS be ARU.

By BigC - 05/11/14

So, so lucky to have these guy’s in my back yard. Been blown away by them many times. Most recently took my wife to her first ARU show at the Georgia Theater a couple of years ago and she proclaimed that that was maybe the best musical performance she had ever seen (out of hundreds of shows!) Afterwards she spent about 15 minutes chatting with Jimmy who is just as nice and gracious as he has always been. Much love and respect for all these fine men.

By Charlie - 05/12/14

I saw them a handful of times in Macon, Georgia. At the Fairgrounds and a converted trolly barn. Great nights of music. Fantastic band. Matt Mundy was a unique musical voice. What a band!

Pookums is an ass napkin.

By IgnatiousOReilly - 05/13/14

Matt Mundy is the JD Salinger of the jam world. Won’t you come out & play?

By David - 05/13/14

Wish we could see them again!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

By ang - 05/21/14

Sadly I never saw them, but I can attest to how great a guy Jimmy is.  I saw him with Frogwings one night when I was a drunk idiot college kid, and for some reason he let me shake his hand at the end of the show and talk for about 5 minutes.

By JP98 - 05/21/14

Sent this article to my Deadhead uncle, (aptly named Uncle John)... At the recent New Orleans JazzFest he told me he used to play golf with Col Bruce in the Atlanta area and was pleased to see he was still out on the road gigging.

By shadygrove - 05/21/14

ARU truly changed my life back in ‘91, a show at Davidson College.

By TDawg - 05/21/14

This article is spot on but I am scratching my head as to how in the hell the author completely forgot to mention the percussionist for ARU the infamous Count M’Butu (who shared a brain with Apt Q-258 and who was given that name by the Col.). WTF? You need to revise this article. In my book that’s sacrilegious brother. Props to Pete for recognizing the error. Hey Pookums GFY you obviously don’t know shit about music. Don’t just eat a dick, eat a bag o’ dicks!

By King Conga - 05/23/14


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