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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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