The Return of Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit

Music Features

There’s Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.) at the end of the bar, a few miles from his suburban Atlanta home, drinking iced tea, staring into his smart phone. My butt doesn’t hit the stool before he starts in with the trivia, the minutiae, the fascinating sleight of hand that can steer any question or conversation away from relevant information, such as the meaning of Hampton’s strange lyrics, or the reasons that band broke up, or this musician went missing.

He looks up from the phone and says, “rank the guys in the band by height, tallest to shortest. Can you do it?”

I can’t.

Quick note: When he says “the band,” he means the Aquarium Rescue Unit, ARU, easily the most heard, most influential of the countless music projects Hampton has spearheaded in his 50-plus years of performing. It’s late June, happy hour, ARU is preparing to reunite for its first extended tour in 22 years, and that’s what I’m interested in.

I’d like to know why, for example, after 22 years has the band decided to reinvent itself as a touring ensemble, and will they produce a live album from the experience? “Probably,” Hampton says to the second question, and “It was our manager’s idea,” he says to the first.

So, the conversation quickly turns to Carol Channing (“Do you think she’s still alive?” She was then, and may still be); the late, trippy pitcher Dock Ellis (“He was friends with Sly Stone, and I heard they lived in a van together for about a week.”), the possibility of a new TV talk show starring Hampton (“I know sports, I know music, and very little else.”) and the long, miserable odds of succeeding in music, something he says he’s still trying to do.

“I can take you to 75 players in Nashville, New York and L.A. that are 65 years old and play better than anybody you’ve heard of, and they’re living with their moms,” he says. “There’s so much more to playing than playing. Good players are a dime a dozen. The biggest thing is, if you’re on time you’re late.”

Hampton sang on a stage for the first time in 1963. At 68, after what must be more than 5,000 performances, he doesn’t consider retirement a realistic option because “I’ve got a gun to my head, forcing me to keep playing,” says Hampton, who has a firm grip on the gun—his attention may be like a revolving door, but his intention is always clear.

He wants action. He’ll bet a ballgame or a horse or a stock now and then. He needs action, needs something to do, needs the gun. It’s the reason he still plays at least 40 weekends a year outside of his home city, Atlanta, conjuring a rotating lineup of flawless musicians. It’s the reason why he couldn’t say no when a director offered him the part of a dog track owner in a movie filming in August and September in Texas. It’s the reason why he’ll play trivia one night, catch the red-eye to Denmark to play a private party the next night and turn right around to play a gig in Philadelphia the next night.

It’s because he loves the action, even if he sometimes makes it sound like he’s barely enduring it. Take the recent anticipated Aquarium Rescue Tour, an 18-show run that began on July 29 in Boulder, Colorado, and ended Aug. 16 in New York at the Brooklyn Bowl. At one point, mid-tour, Hampton said he hadn’t felt this exhausted “since Eisenhower was president.”

So naturally, he’s already hinting that the core of the band will tour again. And maybe that all-star lineup—guitarist Jimmy Herring, bassist/vocalist Oteil Burbridge, drummer Jeff Sipe and Hampton on his signature deep, bellowing vocals (and guitar)—will be joined by their mandolin virtuoso Matt Mundy next time.

“We’d all love to get him back, but I don’t think he really wants to play electric any more,” says Burbridge.

Until recently, Mundy didn’t want to play much of anything. This year’s tour was the first extended road trip for ARU’s core lineup since his abrupt departure in 1993, followed by Hampton’s exit a few months later. Over the years, they’ve played the occasional one-off show, but never with Mundy, who became sort of the J.D. Salinger of mandolin players after hopping a bus mid-tour in Missouri to come home.

“It just got to be too loud,” says Mundy, who more or less mothballed his instrument for years and worked in his family’s music store in Cumming, Ga. “I just didn’t feel comfortable any more.”

If Hampton was ARU’s ringleader, Mundy was the ringer, his mandolin running rhythmic rapids on a stream of jazz and funk consciousness, making sounds no one had ever experienced before, melodic staccato bursts that left his traditional high, lonesome bluegrass roots buried in dust.

“He was exotic to me,” says Sipe. “That was my first awakening into American music at that level.”

To the delight of his former bandmates, Mundy has recently started playing again.

“I’ve played more in the last year than I did in the previous 10 years put together,” says Mundy, who has been playing acoustic music with the band Curtis Jones and Primal Roots at small venues in North Georgia.

Keyboardist Matt Slocum helped fill the void left by Mundy on the recent tour. But the ARU that featured a young Mundy, fresh from the Appalachian foothills, decked out in neon, playing notes that could slacken an arena full of jaws—that version of ARU was making singular music together.

“That band, the version I heard and recorded, was the best band I ever heard,” says Johnny Sandlin, who produced the Allman Brothers Band’s platinum-selling Brothers and Sisters album, as well as ARU’s first two albums (the live Aquarium Rescue Unit and Mirrors of Embarrassment).

On the H.O.R.D.E. tours, musicians from the other groups, like Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, Phish and Leftover Salmon, would scramble over each other from backstage to watch the Unit’s highwire act.

“All of us were heavily influenced by Bruce and the Aquarium Rescue Unit,” recalls Drew Emmitt, the mandolin player for Leftover Salmon, who filled in briefly with ARU shortly after Mundy up and quit. “He was the best I’d heard. I wound up playing a whole tour with them, so I guess I was kind of in the band, sort of. Hanging on by the skin of my teeth.”

The stunned faithful talk a lot about Hampton and ARU in Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Col. Bruce Hampton, a documentary film released several years ago, featuring a guest list of interviewees that includes, among others, Chuck Leavell, John Popper, Peter Buck, Hubert Sumlin, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Walden, who called Hampton “the Vincent Van Gogh of rock and roll music.”

If not Van Gogh, than certainly the Andy Kaufman, or the Forest Gump, just one degree of separation from everything else. For more than 50 years, he’s recorded or shared the stage with almost anyone you can mention, from Duane Allman to Frank Zappa (both of whom were his mentors).

Hampton was already a cult hero long before ARU, before anyone coined the phrase “jam band.” He’d fronted the Hampton Grease Band and the Late Bronze Age. He’d become the South’s grand chameleon of rock and alternative music, guessing the birthdays of strangers with alarming accuracy, working at different times as a comedian or actor (his memorable role in Sling Blade was written specifically for him by Billy Bob Thornton). But really, all he ever wanted to be was black and musical, having spent his earliest years with a caregiver named Liza Mae, who was born a slave and sang always.

“I’ve wanted to be Little Richard since I was eight years old, but I’ve failed miserably,” says Hampton, whose first live performance 52 years ago was a cover of James Brown. “At the time I thought, ‘Gawd, I can do this shit, this is so much fun, this is easy.’ Then I spent the next 50 years trying to find the tonal center.”

Along the way, the idea of reinvention has never been spoken but constantly pursued by Hampton, who has assembled and disassembled a series of bands with distinct sounds. In the years since the original ARU, for instance, there have been lauded lineups, like the Fiji Mariners, the Codetalkers and the Quark Alliance.

It’s been like that with the other guys in ARU as well, new opportunities to add their spin to different sounds: Herring left ARU, started his own jazz fusion outfit, played with the Dead (a reincarnation of the Grateful Dead, post Jerry Garcia), and now considers Widespread Panic his full-time gig. Burbridge played with the Allman Brothers for 17 years and has now joined the current reincarnation of the Grateful Dead with their surviving members, a group calling itself the Dead & Company.

Meanwhile, Hampton keeps extending his metaphysical reach beyond the boundaries of music. There’s the movie about the dog track owner, and another film he’s acting in, and he’s in discussions with Adult Swim about creating a new TV show.

The older he gets, the ways in which Hampton keeps busy keep evolving, but even while flying across the country for his film roles, he’s making time to perform with the rotating lineup of musicians he keeps at the ready. As a singer, he’s evolved from R&B aspirant, through pre-punk explorations of the line separating screaming from music, into a self-assured father figure, or crazed uncle, with jazz and blues gravelly resonance, bringing spontaneity together with soul, planting crazy ideas in the heads of his flock.

“I have no explanation for any of it,” says Hampton, who released a non-ARU album of new material, Pharaoh’s Kitchen, last year and is working on another. Maybe. “I’ve never had a master plan. Everything just collapses into place.”

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