Photo by Andy Tennille
Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit are the Godfathers of the modern jamband scene. In certain respects, they are both the ‘90s jamband scene’s valedictorians—its brightest stars who went on to play with some of the genre’s biggest bands—and its Velvet Underground, a band who never received their proper due but who inspired a generation of players. ARU grew out of the weekly Atlanta jam sessions hosted by Col. Bruce Hampton—a genuine bridge between the Dead/Allmans scene and the modern jamband movement—and quickly focused in on a unique, improvisational blend of blues, funk, fusion, country, folk, rock and other sounds that were often overlooked in the New Wave era. The band’s classic lineup consisted of Hampton (guitar/vocals), Jimmy Herring (guitar), Oteil Burbridge (bass), Jeff Sipe (drums) and Matt Mundy (electric mandolin) while Count M’Butu (percussion), Jeff Mosier (banjo), Charlie Williams (guitar) and even a pre-teen Derek Trucks (guitar) hovered in the band’s orbit during its early years.
Though they never moved beyond the club circuit as a headlining act, ARU had a huge influence on the emerging second-generation jamband scene; Hampton’s free-spirited, highly theatrical “out” approach to music served as the blueprint for many bands on both sides of the fusion/blues border and their mixture of onstage hijinks and technical prowess can still be seen in the stunts everyone from Phish and Dave Matthews Band to Béla Fleck and Widespread Panic pull today. ARU were charter members of the original H.O.R.D.E. tour too, where they perfected the interlocking set concept by seguing into Widespread Panic’s set on the tour’s opening night. The band started to come apart in the mid-‘90s when Mundy, who was long frustrated by playing electronic music, and Hampton both left. The remaining members of ARU soldiered on until the dawn of the new millennium but then they became busy with other projects: Burbridge joined the Allman Brothers Band and Vida Blue, Herring played guitar with both the Allman Brothers and Widespread Panic, Sipe toured with Leftover Salmon, Trey Anastasio and Warren Haynes and M’Butu became a member of Derek Trucks Band.
ARU reunited with Hampton in 2005 and, during the past decade, they have come together a few times for select dates and short runs. (Mundy has not participated in any of the group’s reunions, though he did recently start performing with some regularity in Atlanta). In December, ARU performed for the first time since 2011 during Haynes’ Christmas Jam and this summer the band will mount their longest tour with Hampton in 20 years. The tour kicks off at Colorado’s Fox Theatre on Wednesday night. Hampton and Herring recently discussed the band’s recent reunion, their early club years and why it is ok to take the stage slightly frightened.
ARU will launch their most extensive tour in almost twenty years in late July. Not only is it the band’s first week long run with Bruce since the mid-‘90s but it is also the band’s first real run since 2007. Can you start by giving us a little background on how this run came together?
JH: Everybody wanted to do it last year for the twenty-fifth anniversary. We couldn’t believe it—25 years. But, unfortunately, there were schedule conflicts between the members and there was just no way it was gonna happen until December. When December came along, it seemed like an afterthought. (ARU did perform at Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam in December). We could’ve done the twenty-seventh anniversary if we needed to, but this year we all made time to do it because we wanted to do it. We all love each other.
BH: We got together in the spring for a few days and then, are going to rehearse again before the tour—our longest tour in almost 20 years. We’re thrilled about it. We had our first rehearsal ever in May. And we started to remember the songs, and we’ve got a lot of homework to do. But it felt good and sounded really good.
JH: It wasn’t a rehearsal. [Laughs.] We joke about it all of the time: Back in the day, when we played all of the time, we never rehearsed. Everybody knew each other really well, and we all got along with one another, and there was this chemistry that was really cool. People would come up to us all of the time and go, “Man, who did the arrangement on that piece you just closed the set with?” And we would just start laughing because it was completely improvised, and we would just make up stories. Bruce would be like, “Jeff Sipe wrote that piece,” and, of course, we were laughing amongst ourselves. People would say, “You guys must rehearse all of the time,” and stuff like that, which is a compliment to us because we never rehearsed. Bruce wanted it to be completely in the moment, organic, nothing planned.
There were small parameters around certain songs that we did where we knew, “OK, well, Bruce is gonna sing this or that and we’re gonna play these chord changes underneath it.” But then, when it would go to an instrumental part of the same song, all bets were off; anything could happen. It can go to any other key or we could play for forty-five minutes without even having a key. Recently, we got together for what was supposed to be a rehearsal but it ended up with us just kind of laughing and hanging around. There were some songs talked about from Bruce’s past that we may play. Now, I haven’t learned them yet because I just haven’t had time, but a couple of them were Hampton Grease Band songs, and they’re gonna take a while to get together. We do have three days of rehearsal scheduled for right before the tour kicks off so it will be interesting to see what comes out of that. I don’t know what to expect but, usually, when we try to rehearse, it’s just a bunch of laughing. This group never really does its thing until there’s an audience there and then it’s almost like a switch gets flipped, and we just go. It’s hard to harness the thing that that group was always about.
I used to think, “Oh my God, man, this group is so great but we could be even better if we just planned a few things and had a portion of our set that we rehearsed we would be so much better.” But it’s so hard to harness that energy that that group has by the nature of having something that’s improvised like that most of the time. The nature of it is: sometimes it’s not gonna be good and then, sometimes, it’s gonna be great, and then sometimes it’ll just be whatever it is. That’s just the nature of having an improvisational situation. Bruce is in touch with that—how to harness being happy or sad and showing that in the music. When we were with him all of the time, he helped us find that spot. That was the goal. Now, we haven’t been a band for a while—we haven’t done a proper tour in more than a decade—and who knows what to expect? I know it’s gonna be fun, and I know that I’m gonna laugh a lot. If you’re laughing a lot, it can’t be bad. And, every time we get together with him, we have a blast, so I’m really looking forward to it.
Bruce, in addition to the usual ARU staples and your own classic material, I hear you plan to introduce a few new originals and some material Oteil is bringing to the table. Are these songs your wrote with ARU in mind, songs you had laying around ready to go or material you wrote as a band?
BH: The answer is “Yes”, little bit of everything. [Laughs.] I mean, a couple of them came together during these rehearsals—we just met and wrote them quickly—and the other ones have been sitting around for a while. I think there’s talk of an album, actually. Our manager has a record company, so I am sure it will come out on his label, Abstract Logix. It’ll probably be a live record after the show. Is that the way they do it now? [Laughs.] Everything’s just changed so much for me, man. I just can’t believe where technologies at compared to how I grew up. I didn’t have a monitor system the first 11 years I did gigs. That’s like the wild, west, you might say. And to have a record after you finish playing—that’s just crazy.
Moving from your upcoming shows to the band’s origins, last year was ARU’s 25th anniversary, though Bruce has been hosting various Atlanta jam sessions with many of the players who eventually joined the band for a few years before then. How did the classic five-person version of ARU first come together?
JH: It had been twenty-five years since I first sat in with the band. Bruce has been hosting these Monday night jam sessions at Little Five Points in Atlanta. Oteil, Jeff and Matt would play every week and [one night in 1989] I came by. Shortly thereafter Bruce asked me to join the band, I said, “Yes, of course.” Before then, a lot of Atlanta players would come down and sit in each week. It is expensive to take a large group on the road so, when the group decided to start touring, Bruce narrowed it down to the instrumentation that ended up being the one that did tours. Matt’s not gonna be there with us but we got Matt Slocum [keyboardist] playing keyboards with us in place of that so that’s the way we’re doing it. So it has been twenty-five years since we started touring with Bruce.