By Jonathan Rich
Diving for the (un)Dead with Col. Bruce Hampton and the reunited Aquarium Rescue Unit
What You Need to Know: The What: Col. Bruce Hampton and The Aquarium Rescue Unit featuring Jimmy Herring, Oteil Burbridge, Jeff Sipe, and Matt Slocum
The When: Sunday, August 9, 8 p.m.
The Where: Orange Peel, 101 Biltmore Ave., Asheville.
The Cost: $27 in advance; $30 day of show
The Links: theaquariumrescueunit.com
The Dead (Grateful and otherwise) may be taking a well-deserved nap after having played what was said to be their final concert together last month, but their spirit (as well as a revival) are very much alive with Col. Bruce Hampton and the reunited members of his fabled jazz-rock jam band Aquarium Rescue Unit.
“I was playing on stage while I watched it on the job,” said the retired military man who is now back on the road with his infamous musical munitions crew after more than 22 years apart. “I don’t know how they pulled it off, but they pulled it off pretty well.”
Hampton spoke via telephone from Colorado, where he and his bandmates were practicing for their first full tour together since parting ways in 1993. He said that although several members of his unit have been announced to play dates with The Dead & Co featuring John Mayer, right now all are focusing on the magic they captured so many years ago on the Georgia music scene.
“We always wanted to have freedom. Whatever note you’d play, play it the way you want it to sound. There is no good or bad. Just make sure you are playing for the cause. Go places you’ve never gone as long as it is in the flow of the juice. Blend it in and don’t be a star. The Dead had the freedom to do what they wanted and so did we. It’s all music,” he said.
While members of the ARU may not strive for single star status, they are indeed heavyweights from the history of modern American music. Hampton formed the Hampton Grease band and then later called on some of his friends to form Aquarium Rescue Unit after weekly jam sessions in Atlanta became ridiculously popular. Bassist Otel Burbridge has played with his group the Peacemakers and the Allman Brothers, as well as the Tedeschi Trucks band. Guitarist Jimmy Herring takes the lead strings for Widespread Painc and The Dead. Drummer Jeff Sipe is known for his collaborations with Phil Lesh, Béla Fleck, Susan Tedeschi, Trey Anastasio, and many others. Hampton left the group to focus on founding the influential H.O.R.D.E tour, but the unit soldiered on without him, eventually drafting decorated keyboardist Matt Slocum into service following a 2011 show in Georgia.
Now, it seems that it’s time to put the ghosts of the past to rest.
“We play American country folk music,” Hampton explained. “Jazz, latin, bluegrass, anything as long as it is pure heart. We have good chemistry and a lot of fun playing together. Thirty years, a couple of us, on and off. The chemistry is wonderful. They are the greatest in the world on their instrument. I am a folk singer from another planet, but they can cover it all,” he said.
Hampton noted while Georgia was the band’s initial battlefront, all have done their duty in relation to the Carolinas. Sipe lives in nearby Transylvania County, others have relatives in Winston-Salem and Fayetteville, and the commander of the ARU has traced his bloodline through the Candlers and Polks of WNC. Because of these local connections, Asheville and the Orange Peel are very much a home for these touring musical marauders.
“Asheville is one of the best listening cities in the country,” Hampton said. “Denver, New York and Atlanta, we’ve been to every city out there and Asheville is easily in the top five for people who really appreciate live music. It really is an amazing place.”
As far as marching orders for those coming to Sunday night’s show, Hampton hoped all would feel at ease while the show is recorded both for posterity and an live album to be released a little later on down the line.
“We always have a joyful time,” he said. “You never know what the day is going to bring. We have a good time and our intent is right. The other guys have gone on to become very famous and play other gigs, but we’re doing this for a tenth of the money we could separately because this is what we love and this is what we do.”
Jonathan Rich writes about entertainment for Ashvegas.com.