On the morning before he died, Col. Bruce Hampton sat with radio host Lois Reitzes and spoke about improvising (“it’s like a fast break in basketball”) and his family roots in Atlanta and, most poignantly, of his plans to extend his 53 years of music making into many more. At the interview’s conclusion, Reitzes bids farewell by saying, “After the middle ages comes the renaissance.” And he says, “Let’s hope.”
And yet it was not to be. As if in some implausible screenplay or a final, grand gesture of his famously cosmic sense of humor, Col. Bruce collapsed during the final song of his own 70th birthday tribute concert (it happened to be “Turn On Your Love Light”). He died soon thereafter of causes that have not been officially released. He was surrounded by dozens of the musicians who revered him as a legendary band leader, mentor and spirit guide, including Warren Haynes, Jon Fishman of PHISH, Duane Trucks, Peter Buck of R.E.M and Kevn Kinney of Drivin' N' Cryin'. The fans who were there are saying it had already been one of the most transcendent nights they’d ever been a part of.
Yet there is no consoling in the short term the grief and shock felt by those on hand or those of us worldwide who are processing this news today. And there is no reconciling the strength and clarity of Hampton’s voice on the radio on Monday morning with the finality of his ending on Monday night at the FOX Theater. We who knew him as an almost supernatural figure may be tempted to check the mortuary in three days, for there may be no body to be found.
Hampton, who was born Gustav Valentine Berglund III in April of 1947, is most often identified as a “patriarch of the jam band” scene, and there’s truth to that as a matter of music history. But because that scene is often maligned or admired from afar by lovers of American songwriting and roots music, the designation ought to be supplemented with some other relevant antecedents of his approach to art, folks like Ornette Coleman and John Hartford, Sun Ra and Frank Zappa (with whom he worked early on). Col. Bruce’s avant-garde was a down home sort of fun, not an uptown pose. His surrealism was a compliment to his sense of humor. His natural gravitas, whether spoken or in the language of the blues and rock and roll, was sprinkled with quirks and puns. He could, it is said, guess strangers' birthdays with uncanny accuracy.
His most influential band was the Aquarium Rescue Unit, a sizzling and nimble ensemble with guitarist Jimmy Herring, drummer Jeff Sipe and other iconic Southern boogie musicians. Theirs was a dance between structure and freedom that seemed to levitate the furniture. Hampton was not the most dazzling improviser of the bunch but he was the guide and the glue. And the band was only one platform of many through which he became one of America’s greatest collaborators. He influenced or was in some way part of Widespread Panic, PHISH, The Allman Brothers, Medeski/Martin/Wood and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, among others. He was a key instigator of the H.O.R.D.E. Tours of the 1990s, which offered a scene-making platform for bands that valued communication and spontaneity.
So it was with immense appreciation that we received Col. Bruce for two performances at Music City Roots, in 2012 and 2016 respectively. On the first occasion, he was working with his long time friend Rev. Jeff Mosier and the Mosier Brothers, as well as his then-new protégé lap steel master A.J. Ghent. They wrapped the night with a stirring and holy version of Creem’s “I’m So Glad.” More recently Col. Bruce brought more young talents to Roots as if to say (without saying it) that his legacy is in good hands. That’s true, but we never expected the premise to be put to the test so soon.