Col. Bruce Hampton and the ARU: A Family Affair in Atlanta August 20, 2015 12:33
Col. Bruce Hampton and The Aquarium Rescue Unit’s homecoming at The Buckhead Theater was a family and friends affair of outstanding proportions. The guys blew through a two night run in their home-state of Georgia that featured a Friday night show in Atlanta and a Saturday show in Athens at the acclaimed Georgia Theater as part of their first extended tour in 18 years. Kofi Burbridge, Carter Herring, Efram Townes, and Kebbi Williams all made appearances and celebrated in the spirit of making damn fun music.
The tour was part of the 26th anniversary celebration of when Col. Bruce originally formed Aquarium Rescue Unit in Atlanta back in 1988. Col. Bruce had already established himself on the Atlanta music scene befriending and sharing the stage with the likes of Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band, and many more. Known for his out-of-this-galaxy performances and erratic free spirit, The Col. had been spreading his mad influence across Atlanta for the better part of two decades. He linked up with musicians Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Sipe at the Little Five Points Pub and when the newly created band needed a lead guitar they reached out to their friend Jimmy Herring. They played in clubs around Georgia and the Southeast and built a reputation for their outward performances and unpredictable on stage antics, as well as respect for their impeccable chops and world-class style. In 1991, Hampton and ARU teamed up with other notable jam bands, including Phish, Widespread Panic, and Blues Traveler, to join forces on a mega tour along the eastern seaboard. They named it The H.O.R.D.E. Tour and it allowed the bands to break into large venues such as amphitheaters and arenas as well as grow their fan bases in new regions of the country. Over the years ARU came to embody the essence of The H.O.R.D.E Tour through their spirited playing, respect for the music and musician, and incredible skills. Col Bruce continued to influence many young musicians while on the tour, earning himself a reputation as the godfather of jam bands. ARU would eventually disband and the members would go on to continue their journey as musicians in even bigger acts but their inspiration was never forgotten.
Packing into a sold-out show in the heart of Buckhead, the collective anticipation of the audience was manifesting itself in eager grins on what seemed to be EVERYONES’ faces. It was as if everyone knew each other, not personally, but in the sense that everyone shared in knowing that what was about to take place on stage tonight would not only be one of the greatest demonstrations of musical skill and talent, but also the highest understanding of what it truly means to communicate using music and improvisation.
“Phantom on the Curb” kicked things off, giving Matt Slocum and Herring an early chance to speak their minds. Herrings voice would be prominent throughout the night, and rightfully so. The man is a true guitar master and was really feeling it from the get-go, offering up dazzling guitar play and perfect timing. The classic Hampton cover tune “Fixin to Die” was followed by another in “Yield Not to Temptation” which featured Efram Townes of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band delivering a warm golden solo on trumpet. The band ran through Hampton songs “Elevator to The Moon” and “Jack the Rabbit” as well as “Another Man” before Oteil stopped and welcomed his older brother Kofi (from The Tedeschi Trucks Band) to the stage. Next they kicked off “Rampage” giving the audience their first taste of some new material for the evening. This tune, featuring a slick baseline by Oteil, is an awesome jam vehicle that allowed everyone to chip in and add to the conversation… including Kofi whose flute swayed tastefully along as the musical discussion ebbed and flowed. The classic ARU ballad “Time Is Free” would close the set as Jeff Sipe fiercely drove this jam on as the guys got a few more things off their chest. Col. Bruce preached and to the audiences delight managed to channel the spirit of the jam through himself as he regurgitated his signature nonsense rap into the microphone. Herring and Oteil responded assuring The Col. they were on the same page delivering impeccable solos featuring immaculate taste and control. When these men play together they exhibit an obvious intent to share positive energy with each other and the audience.
The second set commenced with “Brothers House” and then “Isles of Langerhan”, before the guys stopped to welcome Herrings son Carter to the stage. They moved into the Bobby Bland cover “Heartache”. Carter delivered a VERY refined solo and showed great patience during his jam not rushing his notes and allowing his voice to develop over time. Whether he was shaking off the nerves or not, it was impressive enough for Col. Bruce to tease the elder Herring that he had no chance of topping his son. In a show of tough love Jimmy reminded everyone who the man of the house was by rattling off a sweltering solo before playfully trading licks with Carter. Another Hampton staple “I’m so glad” followed. This Skip James cover really gave Col. Bruce’s abilities as a soul and blues singer a chance to shine as he baptized the audience in its joyous melody. Carter took the first solo in this number and did not hold back in the least, demonstrating superb technique and touch. Looking from face to face of the band members, hearing father and son trading licks on stage, Oteil had not stopped smiling all night, Sipe hammering away gloriously on his kit, and Hampton just basking in the freedom - I was really “so glad” I could be there to witness it. “Space is the Place” came next, followed by the super catchy ARU song “Working on the Building” featuring Oteil on vocals. Two new songs surfaced next as the band broke into a particularly hard hitting “1911” and hot blues number “The Dragon” to close the set. The encore featured a jam featuring Kofi, Sipe, Oteil and Kebbi Williams of The Tedeschi Trucks Band that segued into a resounding “Compared to What”
When speaking of Hampton’s impact on others, John Bell of Widespread Panic said that “he knows there is something more… other folks catch the wave off of his movement through this world”. ARU is truly the product of “The Hampton Effect”. Not only do these guys physically kick your ass with amazing technicality and ability, but they are in touch with that “something more”, giving them the freedom to channel energy from different sources and put spirit in a room full of bodies. As we all filed out of the Buckhead Theater into the Georgia summer night, I certainly left a richer person because of my experience with The Aquarium Rescue Unit. Experiencing organic musical synergy, with no barriers or restrictions, featuring some of the greatest musicians of our generation will put a little pep in anyone’s step. Now I know why bands like Phish, Widespread Panic, and Blues Traveler were willing to split their H.O.R.D.E. Tour profits evenly with this little crazy band from Atlanta: because they wanted in on the magic too.