Father of invention

Col. Bruce Hampton.

Never has one name simultaneously meant so much to some, and absolutely nothing to almost everyone else.

Even the enigmatic singer/guitarist himself — an underrated artistic visionary equal in appallingly beautiful purpose to the likes of Salvador Dali, Frank Zappa or any Black Mountain College alumnus — is reluctant to pinpoint his genius.

“I don’t know what I do, exactly — I’m pretty sure I do nothing,” he recently told Xpress.

The Colonel went on to concede: “But I’m damn good at it.”

Long before Bonnaroo — before that kind of three-day, jam-band-fueled festival madness was even thought of — there was Bruce. The man is both the literal and figurative daddy of the modern jam scene, a greasy guitar Buddha who’s fathered groundbreaking groups for the better part of four decades.

In fact, putting together avant-garde rock ensembles has served as “one of the Colonel’s many peculiar talents,” according to Hampton historian Tom Speed. (“He attracts incredible musicians, puts them together [and] pushes them to new territory,” Speed went on to elaborate.)

But of the dozen or so Col. Bruce bands over many years — including Stained Souls, The Fiji Mariners, the notorious Hampton Grease Band or his current entourage, The Code Talkers — Aquarium Rescue Unit is undoubtedly the most profound in its sprawling impact. Born out of 99-cent-cover-charge jam sessions with Hampton in late-’80s Atlanta, the definitive ARU (which more or less disbanded after the Colonel left the band in ’94) spawned some of today’s most relevant musical luminaries in regions of jazz, jam, rock and beyond.

On Oct. 19, that definitive lineup, with Jimmy Herring on guitar, Oteil Burbridge on bass and Brevard resident Jeff “Apt. Q-258″ Sipe on drums, plus percussionist Count M’Butu, will officially reunite with Col. Bruce in Asheville for the first time in more than 10 years.

Col. Bruce and ARU first entered our dimension on 1992’s H.O.R.D.E. tour. The other acts on that bill — Widespread Panic, Phish, Blues Traveler and The Spin Doctors — represent the most successful incarnations of hippie rock to date. Members of all of the above — especially Panic — count the Colonel as a benchmark influence, while the once-young members of ARU went on to their own enormous successes in the sprawling jam world.

In our talk, Hampton called Sipe, Herring and Burbridge “the best drummer, best guitarist and best bassist in the world.” And he may just be right. Besides his work with the brilliant, but now defunct, Project Z, or in Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s band, Herring got the nod in 2003 to fill the late Jerry Garcia’s elusive role in the new Dead. Of an impromptu Col. Bruce/ARU gathering last year in New Orleans, the main precursor to the current reunion gigs, Herring recently revealed: “Everything fell right into place — like putting on an old pair of shoes. It went so well that I couldn’t imagine not doing it at any given opportunity.”

Perhaps more so than any of his ARU mates, though, drummer Sipe has carried on Bruce’s “out” — as in way out — philosophy with his many fusion-minded projects. From the Zambiland Orchestra — a sort of mad precursor to the spirit of Warren Haynes’ Christmas jam — to his mind-blowing work with visionary bassist Jonas Hellborg, Sipe is a drummer for the ages.

Burbridge, meanwhile, went on to become an integral ingredient of the resurrected Allman Brothers band, replacing the late Allen Woody on bass and helping push the Allmans to levels of brilliance not seen since the death of Duane in 1971. Burbridge also plays with his own Peacemakers and the excellent Vida Blue, with former Phish pianist Page McConnell. Of the upcoming ARU reunion shows, Oteil tells Xpress: ” … It’s really fun to come back and just be older and have been through a lot more, and have a calmer take on it — [though] not music-wise.”

To which the Colonel responds: “I had to be adult then to take care of them. … Now I’m a child. … The key to life, then, is to be childlike — and that’s what we had going, which was such a wonderful thing — instead of being childish.

“It’s a thin line and difference, and if you don’t have that playfulness and childlike-ness, you’re missing the whole game.”

[Asheville-based music writer Stuart Gaines, a contributing editor at An Honest Tune, can be reached at youknowthiscity@yahoo.com.]


Stella Blue (31 Patton Ave.; 236-2424) throws its 7th-anniversary party on Tuesday, Oct. 19 with Col. Bruce Hampton and Aquarium Rescue Unit (featuring Jimmy Herring, Jeff Sipe, Oteil Burbridge, and Count M’butu). 9 p.m. $20.

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