On Tuesday, May 5, 2015, Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit did something they had yet to do since forming 26 years ago: They rehearsed. “Or whatever this is,” the Colonel said, waving his hand over the empty expanse of Athen’s Georgia Theatre.
The feeling was certainly more akin to a family reunion as frontman Hampton, bassist Oteil Burbridge, guitarist Jimmy Herring, and drummer Jeff Sipe re-entered collective orbit for the first time since a benefit show at this same locale in 2011. As gear was unpacked, conversations grew increasingly littered with inside references and shared memories, familiarity and warmth the evidence of the endless hours this amalgam has spent on stage, in vans, and (when they could afford them) hotel rooms.
The reason for today’s rekindling? In celebration of the outfit’s 26th anniversary (a significant integer in the Colonel’s private numerology), the quartet – augmented by keyboardist Matt Slocum – is undertaking their first sustained run of shows since 2007: 14 dates, beginning July 29 in Boulder, Colorado. And while each musician can boast an illustrious array of experiences since the band first went their separate ways in the mid-1990s, their delight at being back in the same room together is palpable.
“I just got back from New Orleans two days ago,” Herring says, having just played the gargantuan JazzFest in his role as lead guitarist with Widespread Panic. “I’m exhausted. But there’s no place I’d rather be than right here.”
A small group of reporters from such outlets as Glide, Paste among others experience the ARU’s hard-won camaraderie and get a crash-course in the Col. Bruce Hampton philosophy at an impromptu pre-rehearsal press conference in the venue’s mezzanine. “Bruce always asked me,” Burbridge recalls, “when things weren’t happening musically: ‘Life isn’t always good – why should music be?’”
“Bruce was the first person I played with,” Herring added, “who gave me the freedom to be myself.”
“In those early days,” says Sipe, referring to the band’s legendarily raucous, free-form Monday night sets at Atlanta’s Little Five Points Pub, “we didn’t have a goal. Before meeting the Colonel, I was in so many bands who had a goal of getting a record deal, then didn’t get one, then broke up. We had no plan, and it was liberating.”
“And that was the first band I was in,” Burbridge said, appreciating the irony, “that actually got a record deal!”
From those first local shows, their odyssey extended outward, eventually encompassing cult success (particularly among musicians), national touring, and a pair of albums for the Capricorn imprint – a small catalog considering the vast scope of their legacy. Their improv-fueled performances and dadaist sensibility made them crucial influences on the then nascent “jamband” scene, with Relix going as far as to call them “The Jamband Velvet Underground” in a 2014 appreciation.
Following the 40-minute conference, members of the media disperse and Hampton, Burbridge, Herring, Sipe, and Slocum make their way to the stage. With Slocum – a longtime ARU fan – spurring them on by dialing up previous recordings on his smartphone, they begin to make music together. Rhythmic intricacies realign, and complex passages are worked into shape with an ease and alacrity more suited to old friends than old pros. True to themselves and to the moment, decisions about how to treat a particular passage is decided based on present-day feelings, not by how they used to do it.
A roiling “Trondossa” emerges first, followed by a brisk run through “Too Many Guitars,” with Herring laying lighting licks over a quick, swinging two-step propelled by Burbridge and Sipe. Before attempting “The Isles Of Langerhan” (an onstage favorite pulled from a 1982 pre-ARU Hampton LP), Hampton pipes up from his guitar to ask “Why are rivers rich?” before answering to the silence, “Because they got two banks.”
Later in the evening, just before packing it in, Burbridge makes good on an earlier threat to explore some of Hampton’s earliest material – the songs he cut with the legendary Atlanta underground outfit the Hampton Grease Band – by leading the band through a surging “Hey Old Lady.” And then, instruments return to cases…the time onstage felt like a continuation, as opposed to a beginning – a tantalizing glimpse of what’s to come this summer.
“Everything used to be 300 on the metronome dial,” Hampton reflects, in a rare moment of candor. “We understand time so much better now.”
“It’s about honesty,” Herring concludes. “Bruce taught me that if you play the same way you do after you win the lottery as you do the day your mother is hit by a truck, then you’re lying.”
06/05/2015 PRS Event – Ram’s Head Live, Baltimore, MD
07/29/2015 Fox Theatre, Boulder, CO
07/30/2015 Fox Theatre, Boulder, CO
07/31/2015 Mishawaka, Bellveue, CO
08/01/2015 Ogden Theatre, Denver, CO
08/05/2015 Iron City, Birmingham, AL
08/06/2015 Cannery, Nashville, TN
08/07/2015 Buckhead, Atlanta, GA
08/08/2015 Georgia Theatre, Athens, GA
08/09/2015 Orange Peel, Asheville, NC
08/12/2015 The Ritz, Raleigh, NC
08/13/2015 The National, Richmond, VA
08/14/2015 The Howard Theatre, DC
08/15/2015 Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY
08/16/2015 Brooklyn Bowl, NYC, NY