THE RAMPAGING HORDE
With all the package tours going around these days, it is easy to take the original HORDE tour for granted. This was before Lollapalooza, before the Warped tour, before any of today’s traveling circus tours. When John Popper of Blues Traveler set out to put together the first HORDE tour, he just wanted to use strength in numbers to enable himself and some of his friends to play larger venues, reach more people, and hopefully make more money.
Well, the last part didn’t quite happen. The first HORDE tour barely broke even money-wise, which is one of the best arguments I’ve ever heard for “Money isn’t everything.” The tour featured Bela Fleck, Phish, Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic (drooling yet?) and the forgettable Spin Doctors, but the most commotion often centered around the strange band with the weird name. The other musicians were especially enchanted by this music that pushed the envelope so deliberately, and yet seemed so spontaneous and unforced. There are plenty of bands that play strange music: It is truly a rare gift to be able to play bizarre tunes and make it sound like the most natural thing in the world.
Of course, this didn’t always translate to the audience. In fairness, it is safe to say that for every person who went away from a HORDE show a diehard ARU fan, there were probably two or three Phish or Blues Traveler fans shaking their heads in confusion. This tour is the source of some of the highest-quality ARU bootlegs, and the music on them is challenging, to say the least. However, there was more to it than strangeness for strangeness sake. There is heart-wrenching blues like the classic Shoeless Joe; letter perfect jazz such as Trondossa; and good old-fashioned kick-ass funk rock like a hopped-up version of Les McCann’s Compared To What. In a perfect example of the value of discord in music, these tender and lyrical moments were made that much sweeter by their close proximity to the rawest, craziest, most brain-splitting songs known to man.
The champion of which is Time Is Free, the song most associated with ARU by its fans. I simply don’t have the space to go into individual songs, but this one deserves a special mention. It’s Zen-like lyrics feature what could be the ARU mantra (“Never any reason to be not free”) and the music was a wildly swinging mix of jazz and acid-rock that could and did go in any number of directions once the jamming started. The best versions of Time Is Free are like your favorite version of Dark Star, or Tweezer, or Mountain Jam. They are entire self-contained musical universes, with sections and themes and detours and little pockets of joy to be visited briefly before relaunching the ARU mothership into another uncharted realm.
THE ARU LEGACY
The ARU’s second album, Mirrors of Embarrassment, failed to capture the band’s unique live show, and many fans were disappointed. It featured many favorites like Shoeless Joe, but the attempt to put this chaotic entity into a studio-produced box was resoundingly unsuccessful. In time, Count Mbutu and Matt Mundy faded out, leaving the band as a four piece. While still one of the hottest bands in the land, the inherently busy ARU sound seemed to demand a larger band, and the momentum of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, once seemingly unstoppable, began to break.
After a while, the band’s grueling tour schedule began to wear on the members, especially Bruce. When the original ARU finally broke up in 1994, many friends of mine who knew Bruce were seriously concerned about his health and worried that he might not be long for this world. The rest of the band kept it going for a while with new singer Paul Henson. Even after that ended, nobody doubted that musicians of the caliber of Sipe, Burbridge, and Herring would be able to find work, but there was serious doubt as to whether Bruce would ever find his groove again.
However, the ever-restless Col. Hampton soon found new musical soulmates in keyboard wizard Dan Matrazzo and wildman drummer Yonrico Scott (now with Derek Trucks, a longtime Hampton collaborator), and launched yet another band: The Fiji Mariners. Appropriately enough, their first gig was at the Homage Coffeehouse, which stood on the former site of the Little 5 Points Pub.
In some ways, the Fijis were almost the anti-ARU, replacing the hectic craziness of the Unit with primal, backbeat-driven jazz/funk jams. There were still moments of uniquely Zambified musical madness, but they were grounded in a root down tribal funk groove that was equally informed by Jimmy Smith and South Pacific tribal rhythms. After meeting a shaman from Fiji, Bruce and Dan allowed him to carve sacred tribal patterns on their instruments, and the die was cast.
The band went through more bass players and drummers than can be told here, but the version of the band with Neal Fountain on bass and Marcus Williams on drums may have been the best. The excellent Fiji Mariners Live album, available on Capricorn, shows the phenomenal tightness of this unit at its peak. Eventually, the band would set up residence at the Brandy House in Atlanta, playing there every weekend. These shows turned into a sort of “Bruce and Friends” with such notable names as Derek Trucks, Rob Wasserman, Warren Haynes, and John Popper coming to jam with the Colonel. Then, arguably at the band’s peak of popularity, they broke up.
Bruce went through several bands in a short time, looking for a new sound, before he found Nashville studio wiz Bobby Lee Rogers and founded Col. Bruce Hampton and The Code Talkers, who feature many ARU classics, augmented by new country fried originals. They have a new album due out soon that will focus on Bobby Lee’s excellent, catchy songwriting.
However, the greatest living legacy of the Aquarium Rescue Unit is the Zambiland Orchestra, the annual benefit concert organized by Jeff Sipe. Once a year (December 18th this time around, FYI) the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta is host to one of the most amazing gatherings of musicians on the planet. Joe Zambi, an acquaintance of Bruce’s who is the namesake of the mystical realm of Zambiland, is usually there to preside over his empire. Members of Phish, Widespread Panic, Leftover Salmon, and other bands who are indebted to Hampton’s vision of musical freedom come to pay homage to the great man, and jam their asses off until 4 in the morning. Lincoln Metcalfe, longtime associate of the Colonel and a genuinely freaky dude, usually serves as “conductor”, creating bizarre musical soundscapes by directing the musicians with animated gestures while Jeff Sipe sits behind his kit with a wide grin. It is no overstatement to say that this may be the weirdest, most wide open music created on Planet Earth every year. For one night every year, there truly isn’t any reason to be not free.