col. bruce hampton, 1947-2017

col. bruce hampton.

Familiar with the term “old soul,” the common tag for a personality that might be worldlier than one’s youthful appearance would suggest? Well, Col. Bruce Hampton was the antithesis of that. Oh, he was worldly, alright, right from the early ‘70s when roamed the road with his Zappa-esque Hampton Grease Band. But the career we know the guitarist, bandleader and cosmic raconteur best for placed him in the company of a succession of players that were often a full generation younger. Hampton may have looked like everyone’s dad – portly, mustached, graying – but he possessed the same jovial, inquisitive and playful demeanor of the artists he made music with. That made him not just an unlikely hero of jam band audiences beginning in the early ‘90s, but a journeyman that gave little regard to the age discrepancy between himself and his band mates.

The ‘90s records and seemingly endless tours Hampton clocked with the Aquarium Rescue Unit by and large introduced him to an audience far larger and more loyal than the cultish pockets of fans that took to his music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Hampton’s new generation groove sounds would shift considerably as the decade progressed, taking on strides of jazz, funk and fusion with succeeding bands like the Fiji Mariners and, my favorite, the Codetalkers. The latter, which played Lexington several times at the long-since demolished Dame, had Hampton and his band dressed in suits and ties (although the Col. always still looked appropriately untucked) and boasted a monster guitarist named Bobby Lee Rodgers who played his instrument through the same type of Leslie cabinet used by organ players.

“Usually, I let them go for about five or seven years,” Hampton told me in a December 1996 interview about the frequency with which he formed and dissolved bands. “Sometimes, it’s process that just happens. But that’s fine. I like to build things up and then tear them down. After all, square one is always a challenge for me.”

Whatever the band, audiences loved the music, yet no one seemed to dig it more than Hampton himself. On one hand, he seemed like an aging hippie. But in truth, he was an ageless one who fed off the youthful zeal of his fans and fellow musicians just as much as they looked to him for journeys down continually new musical paths.

Hampton’s exit, sudden and shocking as it was, seemed a strangely fitting final chapter to such an artistically freewheeling existence and career. The subject of an all-star tribute concert last night at Atlanta’s Fox Theater honoring his 70th birthday, Hampton collapsed onstage during the encore and subsequently died. A horrifying experience, no doubt for the audience and artist gathered for the occasion. But, with all the respect in the world intended, what a way for a musician to go.

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