Remembering Col. Bruce Hampton: One Of The Craziest Nights In Live Music History
I was expecting to spend the night of May 1, 2017 recovering from a cold and hopefully would be in bed by 10 p.m. However, a fateful call changed the trajectory of my evening in a way that was so far-fetched I wouldn’t have believed it had I not witnessed what went down. That evening, many of Col. Bruce Hampton’s longtime collaborators, teachers, students and bandmates came together at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta to celebrate the jam scene patriarch’s 70th birthday. In as true a Col. Bruce fashion as possible, Col. Bruce Hampton died on-stage during the last song of the evening surrounded by his loved ones. While I can only imagine how those at the venue felt, I had feelings of my own to deal with as I had watched each and every note of the concert via webcast from my home in New York City and then realized that something had gone terribly wrong at the end.
Let’s start by mentioning Col. Bruce Hampton was a singular personality in the music world and was an axis around which the entire jam scene spun. Bruce entered this mortal plane in 1947 as Gustav Valentine Burglund III. Hampton was always a musician’s musician who flew under the radar of commercial success, whether it was leading the Hampton Grease Band in the ’60s and ’70s or the Aquarium Rescue Unit in the ’90s. In addition to the many members of his own bands, members of Phish, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler and Gov’t Mule are among those who consider Col. Bruce Hampton a mentor and guiding light. Bruce spent the last few years sitting-in with his friends, jamming with his own Madrid Express and as an Artist-At-Large on each Jam Cruise.
One day after Col. Bruce Hampton turned 70, an impressive array of musicians came together at the Fox for the all-star benefit concert known as Hampton 70: A Celebration Of Col. Bruce Hampton. Though the lineup had jaw-dropping qualities, it wasn’t until a friend called me minutes before the event started that I pulled the trigger and purchased the webcast. My musician friend really wanted to see how one of her musician friend’s would contribute to the festivities. She had never watched a webcast before, so I helped get her set up. Once that was taken care of, I decided to watch the live stream myself.
What followed was a parade of stellar performances. The Col. kicked off the action by leading the house band through “There Was A Time” ahead of The Wood Brothers leaving jaws agape, a pair of supergroups assembled just for the concert that each lived up to the collective talent, Chuck Leavell showing why his “Jessica” solo is one of the more iconic piano solos of all-time and an inspired third supergroup featuring members of Widespread Panic and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Col. Bruce then returned to the spotlight to front the final segment of the evening. One of the best concerts of 2017, if not the best, concluded with nearly all of evening’s musicians teaming up on a Col. favorite, “Turn On Your Lovelight.” After John Popper seemed ready to solo forever, Hampton guided the ensemble to let one of his last proteges, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, rip it up on guitar. Col. Bruce Hampton seemed to like what he was hearing from Taz, when all of the sudden the 70-year-old icon went down.
I was watching the webcast and at first thought Col. Bruce was up to his usual shenanigans. However, the looks on the musicians’ faces seemed to change from amusement to horror pretty quickly. The way “Lovelight” was cut short and how the curtain was pulled on the Fox stage made me realize something was amiss. All of the sudden the webcast was over and I was left confused. It didn’t take long for social media reports to start to circulate that Col. Bruce Hampton had indeed passed out. At first I was thankful when a Twitter feed I thought was trustworthy stated that Bruce had come back around and was okay. Sadly, the report was inaccurate.
After over four hours of watching this fantastic concert, I went into journalist mode. I rewound the webcast over and over and knew the situation was bad. The looks on Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and Taz’s faces will stay with me forever. At first, I compiled social media reports for an article with the headline “Col. Bruce Hampton Passes Out At End Of 70th Birthday Concert.” I can’t stress enough that this wasn’t about page views or attention, this was a story unlike any other in rock history and it was important the situation was documented and that fans had a place to go for news they could rely on.
The time was now approaching 1 a.m. and even though my original plan was to have been sleeping for four hours at this point, the adrenalin was coursing through my veins as well as concern for a musician for whom I had the utmost respect. I had a few different places I scouted for information and considering the late hour, there weren’t many places to turn. Around 1:30 a.m. I saw a post on a message board saying the author had inside information Bruce has died. I couldn’t believe it and didn’t want to believe it, but at this point I felt it was prudent to start putting together an obituary. How was this happening? Was I really writing a Col. Bruce Hampton obituary on a night that was supposed to be the ultimate celebration of his life?
More message board posts went up confirming the worst. While my stomach started to sink, I was hoping it was just crazy message board fodder and the now-completed obituary wouldn’t have to be used. Then, around 2:30 a.m. Rev. Jeff Mosier confirmed Col. Bruce Hampton had died. The Rev., one of Hampton’s closest confidantes, surely would provide an accurate account. However, he shared his note on his personal Facebook page and it seemed a little skeezy to use that as the source of information confirming Bruce was gone. Just before the clock struck 3 a.m. the Tedeschi Trucks Band posted the following on their Facebook page:
After collapsing on stage surrounded by his friends, family, fans and the people he loved Col. Bruce Hampton has passed away. The family is asking for respect and privacy at this difficult time.
I posted an obituary I never wanted to write and then tried to go to sleep. Three hours later I gave up on the fruitless effort and headed into work. It was incredibly sad to witness the reactions of those as they woke up, but I was thankful to have provided a place they could get an accurate account of a real-life story that was stranger than fiction. There has been lots of debate about whether Hampton 70 was the ultimate funeral, a funeral in which the person being honored was able to actually enjoy the tribute. I’d like to think the benefit concert was exactly that, a funeral done in as Col. Bruce a way as possible. All these months later, I still can’t believe Hampton is gone. Jam Cruise will be especially difficult, as he was a fixture on each and every cruise I’ve taken. Let’s all raise a glass to Col. Bruce, a great musician, the ultimate jam scene mentor and a wonderful human being.