The Jamband Velvet Underground: Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit

Alan Paul on May 9, 2014

In February 1992, the reunited Dixie Dregs arrived at New York’s Ritz and I was excited to check them out. Though I had always considered their music somewhat sterile if brilliantly constructed, I recognized Steve Morse as a stellar guitarist. So as a young music magazine editor, I was anxious to expand my musical scope and appreciation and Steve was someone that I thought I should better understand. Publicist Marc Pucci pushed me to get there early to see the opening act—the oddly named Aquarium Rescue Unit.

He assured me that the newly reformed Capricorn Records was very excited about the band, led by a longtime Atlanta cult hero, Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.). Still pinching myself over living in New York City, working at a major music magazine and having publicists ask me to go to shows, I earnestly arrived at the Ritz close to start time in order to check out this band with an open mind but with few expectations. They had just started when I walked into the half-filled Midtown Manhattan ballroom and strolled right up to the lip of the stage, immediately astounded by what was unfolding.

A skinny redheaded guy with a beard was hunched over a Stratocaster, dispensing lightning fast licks that danced the razor’s edge I love, where everything could fall apart at any moment, though his sure-handed playing and obvious blues rooting made that highly unlikely. To his right, a handsome young man was grinning, eyes cast toward the sky as he worked a six-string bass with the same mix of skill and abandon, sometimes scatting along to the notes he played. On the other side of the stage, a dark-haired guy with bushy eyebrows was blasting out supercharged bluegrass licks on a Mandocaster, a mandolin in the shape of a mini Telecaster. A brilliant drummer was laying down beats from enough angles to replicate at least two percussionists. Overseeing the whole thing was a crazy little man with a handlebar moustache playing some kind of demented short-scale instrument I would later learn he called a Chazoid. He sang like a bastard child of Bobby Bland and Hazel Dickens and occasionally played wicked, inspired licks. This was obviously the Colonel. He was clearly the ringmaster of this nutty circus, which radiated light and the spark of life and was hilarious without being a joke.

Questions bounced around my racing mind: Who was he? What was this? Why wasn’t everyone talking about this fabulous band? I pushed them all down and out because I wanted to stay in the moment. I’d like to tell you how the rest of the crowd reacted, but I have no idea. I wasn’t looking around, solely focused on the stage, experiencing something that I have just a handful of times—musical nirvana that hit me in the head, heart and guts at the same time and was all the more powerful for being so completely unexpected.

After the show, I watched the musicians break down their own gear and caught guitarist Jimmy Herring’s attention, introduced myself and told him I’d meet him downstairs. I had been invited to a meet and greet, which I had originally planned on stopping by just long enough to see whether or not they had free beer, but my plans had changed.

In a little room downstairs, I chatted a bit with Bruce and spoke at length with Jimmy. We were both somewhat starstruck. Jimmy was thrilled that a Guitar World editor had so enjoyed his playing. I was gobsmacked that someone like him cared what I thought, and convinced that I had just discovered a major talent. I was right, of course, and as silly as Jimmy’s excitement seemed then and still seems now, it was revealing about both his nature and the group’s circumstances.

“We were making $92 a week and sleeping in one room,” Hampton told me recently. “After two years, we got two rooms and we were so ecstatic, we had a celebration. There were five of us in a Chevrolet van with 400,000 miles on it. How we did it, I’ll never know, but I never had more fun or made greater music than I did during that run.”

No wonder Jimmy was so happy that I had taken note of this brilliant musical circus—they were playing for love and for each other and I was an outsider acknowledging their instincts were right, that they were onto something. There is no greater satisfaction for an artist than some affirmation that their struggling is not for naught, something they had received precious little of outside their Atlanta base.

This incarnation of the band played together for about two years. Bassist Oteil Burbridge and drummer Jeff Sipe (then called Apt. Q258) joined Bruce about three years earlier. Hampton originally hired Oteil as a drummer. “We played about three gigs and then he picked up the bass one day and I said, ‘That’s what you’ll be playing from now on,” Hampton says with a laugh. “He was a good drummer, but he was like the greatest bassist I had ever heard.”

All the musicians came to Hampton as virtuosos. He opened up their boundaries. More accurately, he obliterated the very concept of boundaries.

“Old-timers would tell me that Oteil was playing too much, but the song was always there,” says Hampton. “He never lost that. And he was 21 and full of this amazing energy, so why not let him be free? Then, I told him, whatever he wanted to do, do the opposite.”

But isn’t that a contradictory concept—be free and do the opposite of what you want to do? “Yes!” says Hampton. “That’s it.”

If that contradiction makes perfect sense to you, then you are well on your way to understanding Hampton’s Zambi musical approach, which Burbridge sums up in a few words: “Bruce was our ‘professor of out.’”

The Colonel’s educational role was obvious, but to this day he cringes at being called a mentor, even after 20 more years discovering great young players.

“I learn as much from them as they do from me,” he says. “What made me unusual was that everyone my age had either quit or made it. No one was playing clubs and putting together new bands on the cheap like that.”

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.