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By Tom Speed
It would be difficult to overestimate the impact Col. Bruce Hampton (ret.) has had on the jam band movement. He has been a major influence on most, if not all, of its major players since its unofficial inception and has in turn influenced a new generation of musicians as a result.
Col. Bruce Hampton by V.Kamenitzer
Though the first flowerings had been bubbling up for years in places like Athens, Georgia, Burlington, Vermont, and New York, the flashpoint of the jam scene, its unofficial inception, was 1992's H.O.R.D.E. festival. It pitted together three burgeoning bands on the scene — Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler, and Phish — in a pivotal tour that would vault each of them into larger arenas by combining forces.
As the lore goes, Blues Traveler wanted to bring along their compatriots, Spin Doctors. Widespread Panic responded by essentially saying, "If you're bringing them, we're bringing our friend." That "friend" was Colonel Bruce Hampton, and his band (at the time, for there have been many, and will be many more) was the Aquarium Rescue Unit. The rest is this story.
Night after night, the lore continues, Hampton would hold court backstage, imparting his mystic wisdom to these young players, teaching them to rid themselves of ego and play only with intent. Night after night, the heralded players of Phish and Widespread Panic would stand in awe of the manic antics of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, sitting on the sidelines and learning from the least-known band on the bill.
Col. Bruce Hampton by Thomas Smith
Those who followed his guidance most closely had the most long-term success. Those who didn't burned brightly but briefly, eventually fizzling.
Shaman, mystic, mentor, and parlor trickster — Bruce Hampton often blurs the line between fact and fiction so much that he inhabits a world that is actually both, a place where neither is more important or real than the other.
Hampton began our 1999 interview for Honest Tune magazine with a treatise on the 5,000-year-old origins of baseball in Egypt. "Baseball was the perfect game," he said, "a mystic game based on numerology." Three strikes, three outs. Nine players, nine innings. "Nine was the number of completion," he said, as it was a perfect balance of three threes. It wasn't until years later that I looked back at the issue number to realize that the cover story on Bruce Hampton was Volume 3 Number 3, and the interview was done in '99. And Hampton can pontificate for hours like this on almost any subject.
In that same interview, he recounts the tale of Sun Ra delivering something called the Book of Knowledge to Jon Fishman at a hotel room in the middle of the night. Who cares if it's true or not? It's true to him, and that makes it so.
He made the most profound impact on Widespread Panic and Leftover Salmon. ARU and WSP toured together often in their most formative years, often turning the stage over to the next act with a full-band segue, the band members from one group slowly replacing the band members from the other, never stopping the music — a trick that has become common practice in jam band circles. He has been a frequent guest with Widespread Panic over the years, earning him the nickname "Our Daddy" from Panic front man John Bell. Leftover Salmon borrowed heavily from him in their off-the-wall stage antics and free style of playing.
When in Hampton's presence, he at times seems to be channeling mystic energy from the cosmos, whether he's on stage or not (though some would argue that he's always on stage). He is a well-known shade-tree magician and mind-reader. He'll guess your birthday on first meeting. He'll play guitar without touching it. Parlor tricks or mental magic, it doesn't matter. It's real either way.
Col. Bruce Hampton by Thomas Smith
Here's a parlor trick for you: notice when reading this website or Honest Tune magazine or any other publication that covers jam bands with any regularity, how many times Colonel Bruce Hampton's name is mentioned in interviews with other musicians. Be careful. The interconnectedness of it all may seem like you are uncovering some vast underground transit system. And you are.
On the H.O.R.D.E. tour, The Aquarium Rescue Unit was the vortex from which The Colonel wielded his weirdness. Many argue that it was his finest band in a long line of fine bands. The ARU put out just two albums — the live self-titled Capricorn release of 1991 and the studio masterpiece that followed, Mirrors of Embarrassment. Of course the world of recorded music was not really their forte. This band was all about the moment.
In 1994, Hampton left the ARU, citing health concerns. The road was too much for him at his increasing age. The band continued on with new vocalist Paul Henson, put out another album, and toured a few more years while members came and went. It wasn't the same without its spiritual core, but that doesn't mean the players quit. Guitarist Jimmy Herring went on to stints with The Allman Brothers, Jazz is Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends (the best-yet version that toured for years and earned the moniker The Phil Lesh Quintet), the reformed "Dead," and Project Z. Bassist Oteil Burbridge now holds down the bottom-end for The Allman Brothers Band in addition to fronting his own band. And drummer Jeff "Apt. Q-258" Sipe spearheaded the improvisational Zambiland Orchestra for years in addition to serving on the skins for Leftover Salmon and Susan Tedeschi.
Col. Bruce Hampton by Michael Weintrob
Of course, you can't keep a good man down. Bruce was back with a new band, The Fiji Mariners, almost immediately. It wasn't a surprise. That's been his modus operandi for decades — take a band to their creative peak and jump out off the precipice.
Aquarium Rescue Unit by Michael Weintrob
It started back in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the Hampton Grease Band, a band whose claim to infamy was that they recorded the second-worst selling double album in the history of Columbia Records, second only to a yoga instruction record. The world was not ready for Bruce Hampton, even in those crazy times. The different permutations of his particular lunacy followed in a flurry: bands like The Late Bronze Age and The New Ice Age harnessed a madness that was equal parts absurdity and adeptness. Over the years he served as a conduit for avant-garde interpretations of jazz and bluegrass and blues, the pure forms of American music thrown into a blender and poured into a steaming chalice of strangeness. Many of the recordings of that era were released by Landslide Records in the compilation Strange Voices. All of the albums were re-released in their entirety (for the first time on CD) by Terminus Records, with bonus material to boot.
For the past few years, the Colonel's conduit has been The Codetalkers. Admittedly, Hampton's role in this group has been more to champion the cause of chief songwriter Bobby Lee Rodgers, but over the years, the group has incorporated more and more of the unmistakable magic of the Colonel.
Col. Bruce Hampton
That band now seems to be at its creative peak, with the release of an excellent new album, Now. A few weeks ago, Hampton left the tour, citing health concerns. Was it time to jump off of the precipice again, or was it something more serious?
It was something more serious.
Hampton underwent angioplasty surgery this time, but he is recovering. He is wisely staying off the grueling road in order to recuperate, though he is still playing selected shows. Last month, he reunited with The Hampton Grease Band. At the All Good Festival, he reunited with the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and he performed a stunning set at Bonnaroo with the Codetalkers.
Hampton, like most musicians - especially those who refuse to sacrifice their art for commerce, has inadequate health insurance. So some friends, believing that the Colonel should not be burdened by such earth-bound concerns any more than he has to, set up a fund to help defray the considerable medical expenses he has incurred.
Bruce Hampton with ARU at All Good 2006
By Robert Massie
To contribute to this fund, one need only go to any Bank of America branch. Specific information, including how to transfer funds electronically, can be found at Col. Bruce's website - bratoganibe.com.
A note there states the following:
The Medical Needs account is a controlled trust. Only the one designated trustee can remove funds. He will only remove funds to pay for Bruce Hampton's medical expenses such as hospital visits, clinic visits, and prescription medications.
In the event that the balance of the fund exceeds the costs incurred, any excess will be donated to a charity that benefits musicians with limited ability to pay medical expenses. That charity is called Musicares.
If you have any concerns about the integrity of the Bruce Hampton trust and still want to donate, please give to the Musicares Foundation since they are an established nonprofit organization and have helped Bruce in the past.
As a musician, it's all about intent. In the real world that most of the rest of us inhabit, intent alone is not enough. Action is required. So please help out our daddy if you can. It's immeasurable what he's done for us.
Brato Ganibe. Brato Ganibe. Brato Ganibe.
Tom Speed is Publisher and Editor of Honest Tune magazine. His astrological sign is Leo.
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