Atlanta-based jam-band pioneers Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit spent a lot of time on the road in the early ’90s, and plenty of it was in Colorado. “I guess we played about thirty cities in Colorado,” says Bruce Hampton. “We covered it. We would stay up there three months at a time. We always seemed to play at our best when we were there.”
In addition to his work fronting the ARU, Hampton has been performing with various bands over the past four decades, including the Hampton Grease Band, the Late Bronze Age, the Fiji Mariners and the Codetalkers, and he guesses he’s played in Colorado somewhere between 300 and 400 nights since the ’70s — “back when no one was living there and it was the Wild West,” he adds.
While Hampton says he never played at Ebbets Field, the famed downtown Denver club founded by promoters Chuck Morris and Barry Fey, he remembers visiting the venue. “It was a smoking time, to say the least,” Hampton says. “I mean, you’d go in and see Steve Martin open for Tom Waits, and it’d be three bucks. Stuff like that happened.”
It’s fitting, given the ARU’s history in Colorado, that this state would be part of the band’s return. Although Hampton parted ways with the group in 1993, the Rescue Unit continued to perform and record on its own, with Hampton occasionally sitting in.
But the full group is back together now, and setting out on a tour that kicks off in Colorado today with two nights at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, followed by a show at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre, and then one at Denver’s Ogden Theatre. The lineup includes Hampton, original ARU members guitarist Jimmy Herring (who also plays with Widespread Panic), Oteil Burbridge (who was a longtime bassist with the Allman Brothers) and drummer Jeff Sipe, and touring keyboardist Matt Slocum. Every night of the fourteen-city tour will be recorded for a live album to be released later this year.
“We’re a live band,” says Hampton. “We need to record live. Stuff happens; some weird stuff happens. When it happens, it happens, and then it never happens again. If you can do it again, it wasn’t real. It’s capturing that moment, and [then] you’re out of the way. To me, it’s the silence in between the sound.”
Hampton says the band plans to head to Colorado early to rehearse for a couple of days and “to learn how to breathe again,” he adds. There are also plans to work on new material, but what Hampton essentially wants to do is do one very long song.
“What I really want to do is get down to one song, but nobody’s with me,” he says. “I like meaningless repetition. That’s my goal in life, but nobody wants to do it with me. I figure, you know, we can do ‘Candy Man,’ by Sammy Davis Jr., for three days, or [we can do] something good and see what happens.”
Whatever new stuff the ARU rolls out, it’s bound to be absorbing. On the band’s 1992 self-titled debut, Hampton and company demonstrated that they’re well versed in a variety of styles, be it jazz, funk, blues, country, Latin or something else entirely.
“I tell you, we have a blast,” says Hampton. “We play every form of music we can, and that’s what I really enjoy about it. All those guys are such monster players. They can go anywhere at any time.”
That’s precisely what makes ARU shows exhilarating, and if the band’s performance in Baltimore last June as part of PRS Guitars’ thirtieth-anniversary celebration is any indication, the band is still as compelling as ever. (It was the reunited ARU’s first headlining show since 2011, and famed jazz guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Dennis Chambers sat in with the group.)
“That’s about as good as it gets,” Hampton says of the concert. “John, without a doubt, is the greatest guitarist in the world. There’s really nobody who can touch that guy. He’s just absolutely amazing, and plus, he’s a nice guy. And he takes any chances at all times. He doesn’t play that ego game. That’s so refreshing to see. He’ll do anything at any time.
“He’s one of those guys who is good enough to be humble,” he continues. “You save that for Mother Teresa and him. Maybe Coltrane. You don’t need an ego when you’re that good. Of all the greats I’ve ever met, none of them have egos.
“I mean, it’s so funny: The nicest person I ever met was Johnny Cash,” says Hampton. “There were no airs about him, and here’s a guy who, you know, discovered country music. He’s one of the five greats of all time. He’s absolutely the nicest person that ever lived, and he didn’t have to be. He never went out of his way to be one of the greats. He just went way out of his way to be a nice cat.”
Hampton says his motto is, “‘Take what do you do serious; don’t take yourself serious.’
“I mean, I know major guitar players who are just digbies, just weenies,” he goes on. “Southern-gritty, pencil-neck geeks. That’s a genetic drift, is what I call them. I mean, demanding their walls be painted pink, and no one can look at them when they’re entering the stage. They’re out there, man; it’s unbelievable. I mean, you run your hand over a piece of wood — big deal. You cure cancer, and then you have a pink bedroom. Just because you run your hand over a piece of wood really doesn’t impress me.”
For Hampton, music isn’t so much about the instrument or the notes, but rather the musician’s intent. To expand on that point, he refers to his friend Grant Green Jr., the son of late jazz-guitar great Grant Green, and someone with whom Hampton has performed often: “Grant says it best. He goes, ‘I played with Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, George Benson, my father, everybody — and there’s nobody that can touch B.B. King. Nobody.’ He played three notes and the Walls of Jericho fell down. So it’s all about intent. Nobody can hang with B.B. King, as far as I’m concerned. When he’s playing on the A-side of stuff, it’s just amazing. It’s not the notes, man; he’s just doing it. They won’t let him in Berklee, but I know no better guitar player; I just don’t know one. To me, it’s simplicity and honesty and intent and attitude.”
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