It is easy to forget, in today’s fertile jamband climate, that as recently as twelve years ago, there was no such thing as a “jamband.” There was the Grateful Dead, of course, but regardless of what anyone says now, in 1988 the Dead were looked at as a curious anachronism, not the forerunner of a whole new genre of music. The music of the 80’s had been dominated by nightmarish abominations such as The Thompson Twins and Boy George, and there was no compelling reason to suspect that the 90’s would be any different.
By the time the late 80’s rolled around, it would have been easy to write Bruce Hampton off as a curious relic of a bygone age. Since he had first come to prominence as a member of the amazing, and amazingly odd, Hampton Grease Band in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Bruce had become a sort of well-kept local secret in Atlanta. Through excellent, if little-known, bands like the Late Bronze Age, he continued to gather a devoted cult following, but his relentlessly unorthodox musical vision seemed to guarantee that he would remain a fairly marginal figure.
So, in retrospect, it seems all the more amazing that in a nondescript bar in the midst of the Deep South, a band of unknown musical alchemists would brew up a bizarre musical concoction that would blow minds and change lives from coast to coast…
MEETING OF THE MINDS
In a recent interview on Philzone.com, Jimmy Herring recalls the strange sequence of events that led up to the first time he played with Bruce Hampton. (For the benefit of the uninitiated, strange sequences of events ALWAYS seem to happen around Bruce, possibly due to his klezmatronic aura) John Bell of Widespread Panic had wandered into the Little 5 Points Pub one day and been astonished by the weird old redneck dude who created such powerful music. The first true acolyte of Zambi, he rushed to spread the word to others, including Jeff Sipe.
Sipe ran into Herring not long afterwards and told him he had to come check it out for himself. He said that playing with Bruce was “so liberating” and that was appealing to young Jimmy. Liberated is a mild way of describing the formless chaos that Bruce Hampton is capable of generating onstage. In the liner notes to Music To Eat, former Hampton Grease Band guitarist Harold Kelling claims that the HGB’s main dynamic was “music vs. anti-music.” Bruce was the anti-music, performing such bizarre and legendary feats as gargling peanut butter onstage, while Kelling and Glenn Phillips spun a web of guitar mastery around the weirdness and tension created by Bruce.
A lot of musicians give lip service to idea of spontaneity and improvisation, but Bruce Hampton brought the concept to new heights. In his vision, it wasn’t merely acceptable to change keys or scales in the middle of a jam: It was acceptable to speak in tongues, climb the walls, or walk right out of the building. There were literally NO WRONG NOTES, and to restless, adventuresome young musicians like Jeff Sipe, Jimmy Herring, and Oteil Burbridge, it sounded like heaven.
THE AQUARIUM RESCUE UNIT
For a long time, the regular Friday night jams at the Little 5 Points Pub had no name, at least not one that stuck. Bruce, ever mercurial, was fond of changing band names on practically a gig by gig basis, and the fan who went to see Bruce Hampton and the Arkansas Tourists one week would show up the next to find Hampton B. Coles, Ret. And the Arkansas Florists.
Eventually the band came to look at the Pub as an aquarium, and the denizens thereof as fish. They, of course, were the Aquarium Rescue Unit, come to save the poor inhabitants from boredom and mediocrity. The name stuck, and the band’s buzz began to grow. Soon the band embraced Roosevelt, an older black gentleman, as a sort of de facto MC and mascot. At first Blueground Undergrass leader Jeff Mosier was in the band to lend some bluegrass flavor, but he was replaced by mandolin wizard Matt Mundy. Legendary local percussionist Count Mbutu began sitting in more and more often, and a unique sound started to emerge.
There are plenty of bands around that play wild free jazz, or nasty Delta blues, or booty-shaking funk, or mind-destroying acid rock. There are even a few, Phish obviously comes to mind, that try their hand at all genres. To this day, though, the ARU are the only band I’ve ever seen attempt to play all these styles SIMULTANEOUSLY. As it turns out, when you take musical freedom to the farthest possible extreme, that is a sound unto itself. One friend of mine described the ARU sound as “everybody playing something totally different, but somehow it works.” Another was even more to the point: “Bruce tries as hard as he can to throw off the rest of the band, and they do their best to keep it together.”
Atlanta music fans united behind the band quickly, recognizing that something special and unique was happening, and it was happening in our own backyard. Soon they were playing outside of Atlanta, hitting Athens and other Southern college towns to rave reviews. Somehow, what had started off as a loose weekly jam session had hit escape velocity: The ARU were ready to take it on the road.
PREACHING THE GOSPEL OF ZAMBI
If I didn’t know for a fact that Trey Anastasio came up with Gamehendge as his thesis years before he met Bruce Hampton, I would be tempted to think he stole the idea. As the ARU evolved, a strange sort of mythos evolved with them. The music was SO otherworldly, SO different from standard 80’s fare, that it wasn’t even much of a stretch to assume that it must come from a far distant land…
And that place would come to be called Zambiland. The motto of this strange place can be summed up by the following lyrics from the song Peace and Happiness: “Zambi has/ But one command/ Peace and Happiness/ In Zambiland.” So much of Bruce’s music is filled with lyrics about extraterrestrial visitors and strange realms, it was a perfect match. Besides, as if the band wasn’t already “liberating” enough, if the music you are playing comes from another place, now you REALLY have a license to get weird. While this approach is obviously indebted to Sun Ra, whose songs were popular covers at ARU shows, there was a uniquely Southern twinge to this brand of madness. The most “out there” space jams could be, and often were, interrupted by Bruce doing a dead-on impersonation of a pentacostal-style Southern preacher. With Bruce providing a never-ending flow of strange characters, weird stories, and incomprehensible non sequiturs to keep the music conceptually interesting, the rest of the band were free to do what they did best: JAM.
And jam they did, my children. Now that Jimmy Herring, Jeff Sipe, and Oteil Burbridge have become household names in the jamband community for their work with Jazz Is Dead, Leftover Salmon, and the Allman Brothers, it is hard to properly describe how amazing it was to walk into a small club and see musicians of their caliber being unleashed on an unsuspecting public. I will never forget the initial reaction of my friend Case the first time he saw the ARU. He was from up north and had seen Phish in their formative years, and thought he knew a thing or two about jamming. By halfway through the show he was astounded, and leaned into my ear to whisper “These guys need a better agent!”
Well, that could be a whole article in itself. I don’t know enough of the details to speak authoritatively on this subject, and I have no desire to get sued, so let me just say this: The Aquarium Rescue Unit are one of many bands who have, sadly, been screwed over by the music business. At their peak they were playing over 200 shows a year, but none of the members ever got paid adequately due to poor business decisions. It’s an old story, but at least in this version, the victims get their props in the end.
The peak period of this remarkable band is, luckily, captured quite well on their outstanding self-titled debut album on Capricorn, which features keyboardist Chuck Leavell of Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones fame. Raw, manic versions of blues classics like Yield Not To Temptation and Fixin’ To Die sat side by side with otherworldly freakouts like Quinius Thoth, which in my humble opinion is one of the hottest jams ever captured on tape. A great version of Basically Frightened is a highlight, as is a downright demented version of the old classic Davy Crockett. This album was like NOTHING else available in 1990, and many of your favorite musicians have probably worn out their original copies by now. Having shown the world what they were capable of, the ARU would soon go nationwide.