RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA – Referred to in a recent Relix feature as “The Jamband Velvet Underground,” the influential dada-jam trailblazers Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit will return to rattle the landscape this summer with a series of live performances – than band’s first since a much-talked-about 2011 reunion at the Georgia Theatre in Athens.
With the daring, iconoclastic Hampton at the helm, the Aquarium Rescue Unit played a seminal role in fostering today’s vital, thriving improvisational music community. And their presence is still felt: Since Hampton and the band parted ways in 1993, the band’s members have gone on to both inspire and enliven the music of the genre’s most revered practitioners. Maverick guitarist Jimmy Herring assumed lead guitar duties in Widespread Panic, while also working with the Dead, Jazz is Dead, The Ringers, and appearing with the Allman Brothers. Bassist Oteil Burbridge, in addition to his own Peacemakers, has been a member of the Allman Brothers since 1997, founding member of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, and worked with Phish keyboardist Page McConnell’s Vida Blue. Jeff Sipe (aka Apt. Q-258), continues to be among the most highly regarded drummers of his generation, pursuing his own music in addition to collaborating with Phil Lesh, Béla Fleck, Susan Tedeschi, Trey Anastasio, Jazz is Dead, Alex Machacek, Debashish Bhattacharya, and many more. For these dates, the ARU will also be joined by keyboardist Matt Slocum, who played with the band at their 2011 Georgia Theatre show.
Which leaves the good Colonel (retired)...a seismic catalyst of the first order, Hampton’s presence was first felt as a member of the cult Georgia ensemble the Hampton Grease Band, who cut one uncategorizable album for Columbia in 1971. From there, Hampton – a mesmerizing blues-inflected vocalist, freewheeling guitarist, and caustic ringmaster – applied his boundless energy, cosmic wit, and fearless exploratory zeal to pursuits as varied as standup comedy, wrestling, and music ranging from free jazz to hillbilly blues. The Aquarium Rescue Unit coalesced during a weekly jam session in Atlanta, which gained a reputation for both its musical daring and far-out conceptual theatrics. From there, the band took their act on the road, gaining a loyal following among fans and fellow musicians before signing with Capricorn Records. The ARU played a pivotal role in the founding of the the first H.O.R.D.E. tour – where tour mates Widespread Panic, Phish, and Blues Traveler were often seen watching their sets in silent amazement. “We basically lived on the road,” Jimmy Herring explains, “and we got the chance to play every day in a situation where we could try new things, without fear of getting fired for playing ‘wrong’ notes. These ‘wrong’ notes eventually became our thing.
“We have said for years that there are two kinds of musicians,” Herring continues. “Those that have played with Bruce, and those who haven't.”
“Being a part of Bruce's musical world is a liberating experience in that he entices the players to discover their true and full expression,” adds Jeff Sipe. “Musicians and friends who have spent time in Camp Hampton have an understanding of where honest music comes from…”
“With Col. Bruce there's always the threat that something radically different is going to happen midstream,” Oteil Burbridge says. “Lightning might strike us, or maybe an earthquake will choose us as its epicenter.”
Periodic Aquarium Rescue Unit reunions, both with and without Hampton, have taken place over the past two decades, but these shows represent the band’s first sustained run of dates since 2007. The sets will feature a mix of new and old material. Most crucially, every performance will be recorded for a possible live album release on the Abstract Logix imprint. “Despite their profound influence,” says label founder Souvik Dutta, “Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit were terribly under-recorded – especially compared to the volume of music released by jambands today.”
While listeners and musicians are already salivating at the potential of this reunion, no one is more excited than the ARU members themselves. “While the youthful ARU was exciting live, I think the more experienced ARU can have more of an impact,” Burbridge reflects. “After 26 years, we’re all friends and are still inspired,” Sipe concludes. “Getting together again is for me a rare privilege and one that's filled with magic, because each of my friends are so brilliant and truly awesome. I'm a lucky man.”
When asked for his thoughts on the upcoming reunion, Hampton simply responded, “Activate.”