By Jeffrey V. Smith
Col. Bruce Hampton has a way of making musicians better. His surrealist, boundary-breaking approach to music, improvisation and life in general has a magical effect on those that play with the “father of jam bands.” Members of Phish, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, R.E.M. and The Grateful Dead, Derek Trucks, Dave Matthews, Warren Haynes and many more consider Hampton to be a musical visionary and at least partially credit him with their successes.
The musician emerged in the late 60s with the Hampton Grease Band and has used his “boundless energy, cosmic wit, and fearless exploratory zeal” ever since to create music ranging from free jazz to hillbilly blues in bands like the Late Bronze Age, the Codetalkers, the Fiji Mariners, the Quark Alliance and, most notably, The Aquarium Rescue Unit. ARU first coalesced at a weekly jam session in Atlanta before taking their act on the road, signing with Capricorn Records, helping found the first H.O.R.D.E. tour and defining the jamband scene for decades to come.
Hampton and The Aquarium Rescue Unit, which split ways back in 1993, return to the road in July for the band’s first run of dates since 2007. The band’s first shows since one-off dates in May and 2011 take place at the Fox Theater in Boulder, July 29-30, the Mishawaka in Bellveue, July 31 and the Ogden Theater in Denver, Aug. 1, before heading off to the South and East Coast. Aquarium Rescue Unit includes Hampton alongside original members Oteil Burbridge (Allman Brothers) on bass, Jimmy Herring (Widespread Panic) on guitar, and Jeff Sipe (Bela Fleck, Phil Lesh) on drums. Keyboardist Matt Slocum also joins the band for this tour.
Although the band leader, who is “humbled beyond belief” to play with such talented musicians, doesn’t take credit for much. “I think I’ve just given everybody the opportunity to find themselves, to find their own voice,” he said.
Hampton’s “out” musical philosophy is unique, creative and strictly non-commercial. “Whatever they were going to play, play the opposite, that’s my rule. Don’t play what you think you are going to play. Don’t come in with a preconceived idea. Have it completely opposite of what you think it will be, then it will turn into something beautiful, possibly, or something ugly,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to fall flat on your face. The theater of embarrassment is always a great thing to hit. When you go, ‘oh my God, that was horrible;’ if you repeat it three times, it’s genius.”
Ushering along so many talented musicians in their careers has made Hampton feel like a Triple A baseball manager, but he doesn’t want it any other way. “I wouldn’t want to get out, I don’t want to answer the phone that much. I don’t think I could ever have been commercial, I don’t want commercial success,” he said. “I enjoy playing, and it opens the field for chaos. I am not in some niche, anything can happen. And with me, I feel I am 39 years behind or 7 years a head. I am never in the now. It never works.” Hampton says when chaos and stuff happens, don’t deny it, go for it “Life has problems, play them,” he said.
The “mesmerizing blues-inflected vocalist, freewheeling guitarist, and caustic ringmaster” explains his approach to music comes from “liking what should be,” he said. “That sounds presumptuous and pretentious, and I certainly can’t do what should be, but I just like pushing the now. There is nothing ahead of time. Time is where it is, and you can’t go past it.”
It’s also a revolt against everything musically bland in the early 60s. “I just rebelled against everything I heard,” he said. “There was Jack Jones and… The Flying Nun. People don’t realize until the Beatles broke, that is how bad it was. The Flying Nun was on the charts for like 14 weeks. It was just an absolutely awful time for music. So, I think that’s what got my rebellion from.”
After being in the business for close to 50 years, Hampton is confused by today’s music and its stars who don’t seem to know themselves. “What I am interested in, is somebody. I want to hear them sound like themselves. There are major stars who haven’t found out who they are yet, and that blows my mind. I still don’t hear them, I hear their influences. I can’t believe it, especially since they’ve made money and are more secure in what they do, but they don’t venture more into something else. When they get millions of bucks, why don’t they do something exciting? It’s always the same pattern. They could dribble a basketball or hire 40 swimmers, just something different, man. Just play Louis Louis for nine days, you know, with 400 people, just something a little different than the same pattern of life. It’s like eating bread and cereal. Music is food, and there is a lot of it.”
Fans of Aquarium Rescue Unit are eagerly awaiting a return of the Hampton-led band and its fun fusion of Southern rock, blues, bluegrass, Latin, jazz, funk and impeccable chops. Band members are equally excited to reunite with the former mentor. “With Col. Bruce there’s always the threat that something radically different is going to happen midstream,” Burbridge said in a recent media release.
“Bruce is a visionary that has enriched the life of anyone that’s worked with him,” Herring said. “He gives you an outlet that encourages finding your own voice, but he’s quick to point out that freedom can be a prison.” Sipe, also known as Apt. Q258, agrees. “Being a part of Bruce’s musical world is a liberating experience in that he entices the players to discover their true and full expression,” he said. “After 26 years, we’re all friends and are still inspired. Getting together again is for me a rare privilege and one that’s filled with magic, because each of my friends are so brilliant and truly awesome.”
Hampton “loves” to play on Colorado and can’t wait to return with Aquarium Rescue Unit. “It’s the best musical state, by far… there seems to be a freedom there. I don’t know of a better state… there is always a great spirit in Colorado.”
Originally published in the July 2015 issue of the MMAC Monthly