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H.O.R.D.E. Core (25 Years Later)

by Dean Budnick on May 02, 2017
Following Bruce Hampton's tragic passing last night we share this story which ran in 2012 marking the 20th anniversary of the initial H.O.R.D.E. tour. Hampton and Aquarium Rescue Unit were essential to the origins and spirit of the event.

Photos by Steve Eichner


I'll never forget what I heard on that walk to the venue.

It was the late afternoon of July 9, 1992 and I had just arrived at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine for the debut of an eight show multi-band bill that pledged to showcase the Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere. Blues Traveler manager and HORDE co-owner Dave Frey recalls viewing the “Stephen King-like” fog as a portent, describing the weather as “ominous” (of course he was anxious about the slow advance ticket sales for the event but would be appeased by a few thousand walk-ups). Such an adjective was the furthest from my mind, as I made my way to the facility, passing rows of parked cars, while their affable, energized occupants gathered nearby, chatting, imbibing but above all else representing, playing the music of the groups that pulled them across the Maine border (and a quick glance at the license plates made it clear that most of these vehicles had indeed originated from out-of-state). It was like the boosterism of the 1920s all over again but rather than preaching the virtues of their local townships, the focus was on music borders or perhaps the lack thereof, given the range of improvisation reflected in that quilt of sound.

As I walked inside the venue, I discovered a welcome, wondrous site: five thousand animated folks showing their colors. Phish and Blues Traveler predominated the T-shirts iconography but Widespread Panic and Spin Doctors had their adherents as well (I’ll confess that I can’t remember seeing an Aquarium Rescue Unit shirt, even if they were the band that would predominate my thoughts over the days to come, leading me to a second helping of H.O.R.D.E. a few days later). In this era before the Internet had really take hold there was a prevailing sense of We Are Not Alone. Who knew that this many people would travel to Portland, Maine for 75 minute sets from these five groups (and twice that number would attend the shows at Garden State Arts Center and Jones Beach). Before the initial notes were sounded, there was a palpable anticipation fueled by a self-selectiveness that I would not experience with such intensity until the first Bonnaroo.

I would go on to write a book called Jam Bands and accompany it by founding a website, called I firmly believe that my perception of a particular musical constellation first crystallized during the course of that evening in Portland, Maine.

John Popper, the Blues Traveler frontman and driving force behind the event, is reluctant to take credit for this. “That’s the thing I always debate: Are you doing the shaping or are you being shaped by your generation? It’s hard to tell. I think that H.O.R.D.E. was more about discovering the world around you. In a way H.O.R.D.E. brought you a glimpse of that in a shot but you’d have gotten there yourself. Or do you think you never would discovered the ARU if it wasn’t for the H.O.R.D.E.?”
Here’s hoping that I would have but let the record show that I did discover them that day in Portland, Maine, during their opening set that culminated most majestically with a full-band segue into Widespread Panic. There was something happening here and H.O.R.D.E. not only manifested it but gave it new form as well.

How that all came to pass began with a meeting in the Bill Graham Management’s New York office on a Sunday night four months earlier. Widespread Panic’s John Bell, the Spin Doctors’ Eric Scheckman, Col. Bruce Hampton of ARU, John Popper and a couple of his Blues Traveler bandmates and all the members of Phish came together, with no managers or agents allowed, as they discussed a plan to join forces with the hope that these five club bands could generate a collective interest that would allow them to move into amphitheatres for a few dates…

John Popper: We all met in a room in Bill Graham’s office and there was a certain reverence. If you’ve ever been in Bill Graham’s anything there’s a rock and roll reverence. “Oh that’s Janice Joplin’s tambourine, just hanging out right there.”

John Bell: That meeting up in New York was a gas. I’d never seen that before. Everything else now is promoters, agents, managers. They cook up the scenarios or you just fit yourself into something like Jazz Fest or Bonnaroo, which is great, it’s well-organized and put together. But we’d been playing with each other for the past couple years opening for each other in different territories and this was young band guys getting together and having their own ideas of what was going on. It wasn’t coming from the management, so it was really hip.

Mike Gordon: I remember managers weren’t allowed in the meeting although there were a couple hovering outside.

John Popper: [Jon] Fishman wanted to stage a little skit. He said, “I’m going to run out screaming and you guys drag me back into the room so that everybody will be like, ‘What the hell are they doing in there?’ Well he got really into it with his “No, no, don’t take me back,” and he ripped the door off the hinge.

Bruce Hampton: I remember everybody was real idealistic and we all wanted to do the festival for a ten buck ticket which was unheard of.

John Popper: Then Trey [Anastasio] stands up and goes, “Why don’t we finally just make it something where it’s five different bands, equal billing, equal money everywhere no matter what the audience says.” And we’re all like, “Yes, let’s do this!”

John Bell: Then Mike Gordon brought out a jar of Vaseline and we all shook hands after ceremoniously dipping our hands in the Vaseline.

John Popper: I still have that jar of Vaseline.

Eric Schenkman: The other thing that came out of that meeting was the idea of the H.O.R.D.E. sword. Popper had someone make a sword, like a Merlin double-edged, huge knight sword and every band got one.

Left to themselves during that Sunday night meeting, the musicians devised an idealistic, egalitarian solution but then Monday morning arrived and with it came the realities of the music industry.

John Popper: The next day Trey called me and goes, “I talked to my manager and we just can’t do that.” And I understand why he couldn’t. They have to eat, they have people to pay. They would have been giving up quite a bit had they done that deal of a five way spilt. You can’t expect them to do that. My next call was to John Bell and he said, “I understand but then we have to do the same thing down south.” So then suddenly everybody’s coming to their corners.

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