It makes sense that Col. Bruce Hampton is a baseball fan, because the underground music legend is kind of like a minor league manager. During a recent phone conversation, he informs me that I share a birthday with Cal Ripken, Jr., and that retired all-star pitcher Virgil Trucks (uncle and great uncle of the Allman Brothers Band’s Butch and Derek Trucks, respectively) is the oldest living Yankee.
With overflowing knowledge like this, it’s no wonder the quirky sage of Southern gonzo groove has fostered so much young talent during his four decades in the business. Hampton is best known as the former leader of the Aquarium Rescue Unit. The ‘90s exploratory jazz rock outfit featured a list of all-star players who have gone on to bigger success: bassist Oteil Burbridge (Allman Brothers), guitarist Jimmy Herring (The Dead, Widespread Panic), and drummer Jeff Sipe (Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams).
An Atlanta native, Hampton, 63, first emerged in the late ‘60s. His Hampton Grease Band played free concerts in Piedmont Park with the Allman Brothers, when they were a new group just branching out of Macon. Since, Hampton has fronted at least seven different bands and consistently remained a best-kept secret in Dixie music dives. With ARU, he had his closest brush with commercial success. The group was right next to Phish, Widespread Panic, and Blues Traveler at the dawn of the second-generation jam band explosion. The bands played large amphitheatres together on the traveling H.O.R.D.E. tour, and many thought ARU would become the biggest of the bunch. But at the brink of success, Hampton likes to step back.
“I want to lay low and get the job done,” he says. “I want to play great music as cheap and quiet as possible. That might not be the smartest thing to do, but I’ve never cared about commerce.”
It’s obvious from Hampton’s music that mass appeal has never been part of his agenda. His cosmic blues have always been laced with freeform, zany absurdist antics—reminiscent of Frank Zappa—like playing a chainsaw in key. His husky voice tells strange stories about time travel and paranoia. His onstage mannerisms are weirdly theatrical, which makes sense, as Hampton picks up the occasional acting role, including a part in his friend Billy Bob Thornton’s Oscar-winning Sling Blade. Hampton also had great teachers. He grew up sneaking into Atlanta blues clubs, where he caught Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Otis Redding, and B.B. King. He was also friends with the late Zappa. Studying improv-driven legends in tiny rooms shaped Hampton’s well-known motto: “When in doubt, go completely out.”
As a bandleader he doesn’t believe in boundaries, but he wants players who can organize the chaos. Sipe, Herring, and others have called playing with Hampton the most liberating experience a musician can have.
“I look for intention and essence,” Hampton says of his chosen supporting casts. “I don’t want someone in the blues police or jazz police or rock police. I want someone who can play anything at the drop of a hat with purpose and voice. In this day and age everybody’s good, but I want someone who will put a note in the room and make it last for a week. I give people the opportunity to be themselves and have freedom in the music they play.”
These days, Hampton is still at it, slogging through bars and clubs with his latest group, The Quark Alliance. The band’s oldest member is 24, and it includes Duane Trucks (Derek’s brother) on drums. It’s his latest farm team, a group he is happy to show the ropes in tiny rooms, because, “small churches are where the magic is.”
He’s happy to still be doing what he loves, hoping others get the glory.
“I have no master plan in anything I do, but this is what I have to do,” he says. “I’ve always been able to play on my terms, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Catch Col. Bruce at the Pour House in Charleston, S.C., on January 29 and the Northside Tavern in Atlanta, Ga., on February 5.
ESSENTIAL COL. BRUCE
Col. Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit – Live
Many consider this the greatest band that never reached its full potential with Hampton leading present day virtuosos Jimmy Herring and Oteil Burbridge, as well as reclusive mandolin ace Matt Mundy. This live album showcases Bruce and the Unit firing on all cylinders with swamp grooves, jazz flourishes, bluegrass dips and wacky improvisatory tangents. It starts with a legendary introduction from Widespread Panic’s John Bell.
Hampton Grease Band – Music to Eat
Hampton’s onstage antics in the late ‘60s—doing co-bills with the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band—earned him a major label deal with Columbia. This album, which is more in line with the out-there rock of Frank Zappa, is reputed to be the label’s second-worst-selling release of all time (behind a yoga instruction album). Still, the album is beloved by many fans who helped push for the 1996 re-release.
Col. Bruce Hampton and the Late Bronze Age – Isles of Langerhans
This 1982 release with Hampton’s band the Late Bronze Age features original versions of some of his greatest live staples that he still plays today, including “Time is Free” and “Jack the Rabbit.”
Col. Bruce Hampton & the Quark Alliance – Give Thanks to Chank
Hampton’s 2007 release with his current band is a wild ride of gritty funk and soul with plenty of his trademark humor, including homages to the North Mississippi Allstars (“Them Dickinson Boys”) and Susan Tedeschi (“Susan T”).