A scene spawned, a landmark reborn: ARU reunites at the Georgia Theatre


Col. Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit
Georgia Theatre
Athens, GA
August 8, 2011

Roughly halfway through a stellar three-hour performance that celebrated both an Aquarium Rescue Unit reunion and a Georgia Theatre resurrection, bandleader, philosopher and groove impresario Col. Bruce Hampton paused for a moment in reflection.

“It’s good to be back in the Georgia Theatre,” Hampton said to thunderous applause and scattered rebel yells.

“This is the third time I’ve opened it. I was here back in 1989…1978…1922.”

imr_7886.jpgWhile the sold-out audience — and, presumably, those on “Couch Tour” watching online via iClips — laughed along with the Southern jam scene’s elder statesman, the significance of that moment’s convergence of past glory, present success and future opportunity surely wasn’t lost on anyone blessed enough to be in attendance.

Beyond the obvious delight in seeing the bright lights shine once again in one of music’s best-known and most-cherished marquees two years after the Georgia Theatre experienced significant fire damage, this Monday night show brought together killer talents and kindred spirits that Hampton both nurtured and inspired. While one would be foolish to claim a view from Hampton’s vantage point, you have to wonder if, on this magical night, the Col. didn’t surmise his surroundings and also reflect on his role in the dynamic careers launched, the artistic principles espoused, and the still-flourishing scene spawned.

This billing was not a full ARU reunion in that the lineup did not feature previous members Rev. Jeff Mosier, Matt Mundy, Count M’Butu and Charlie Williams, consequently lacking the bluegrass and funk elements infused in early-day ARU’s eclectic sound. In addition, Matt Slocum (Hammond B-3 organ and keyboards), perhaps best known for his work in Susan Tedeschi’s band, made his debut with ARU. Yet, no matter the personnel changes, it was clear from the moment the show began with an extended instrumental jam (sans Hampton), that all the players were dialed in and eager to prove that — no matter where their careers have taken them — ARU remains a mighty musical force.

imr_7674.jpgBassist Oteil Burbridge is a Grammy-nominated genius and centrifugal force, yet it was clear on this night that the star power belonged to guitarist Jimmy Herring, who since his ARU days has been involved in a number of intrepid ensembles (Project Z, Jazz Is Dead, Phil  and Friends), though most notably for this rowdy crowd with home-team heroes Widespread Panic. During the intro, Herring’s beaming smile and restrained tone revealed delight and ease in the jazzy groove enveloping his sound.

Hampton, appearing buoyant in his step and relaxed in his resort-casual garb of red short-sleeve button down and khakis, graced the stage a few minutes in and introduced each band member by name and instrument before merely motioning at Herring to elicit raucous praise.

The band launched into Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ bebop classic “Compared to What,” which caught fire after the first chorus with Slocum working the Hammond B-3 to excellent effect in leading the group into its first solid groove. Hampton picked up Duane Allman’s ’57 Goldtop Gibson Les Paul to lay down some nasty blues licks and tight interplay with Herring during the next number, which also found Slocum’s frenetic fingers moving deftly between the organ and keyboard.

Slocum’s inspired play lead the band’s changes all night, and he delivered a slow, funky keys intro on a jazzy rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life,” with Hampton nailing the lyrics. Moving about the stage and snapping his fingers in time from the amused pose befitting a Vegas lounge lizard, Hampton delighted the crowd with his classic “Basically Frightened.” He pointed at Burbridge for the line “I’m frightened of the ozone / When it’s in your hands,” prompting a solo so hot that Hampton used his towel as a fan to cool the bassist down.

imr_7320.jpgThe band next shuffled into “Fixin’ to Die,” the ARU version of a much different tempo and texture than Widespread Panic’s take on this blues staple. Driven by drummer Jeff Sipe (aka Apt. Q-258), who was steadily in-the-pocket all night, Slocum and Burbridge locked into an absurd keys/bass jam that catapulted all to a higher level of play and connection that carried the remainder of the show.

Classic blues tunes continued with “Smokestack Lightning,” which morphed into a fult-till, greasy-spoon, Zambie-fied frenzy. Beyond the infectious groove created with his instrument, Burbridge’s deeply spiritual resonance also surfaces in his vocal effects, which at this point ushered in a mellow-down-easy approach into another Hampton favorite, “Space Is the Place.”

Herring shredded a flawless transition into “Spoonful,” which Hampton introduced with a tip of the hat to its writer, blues legend Willie Dixon (though Howlin’ Wolf’s version is more widely recognized). An expected, though appreciated, “Lovelight” closed out the set at 11:30 p.m. A “Jack the Rabbit” encore, featuring a solid drum solo by Sipe, ended with a triumphant solitary exit by Hampton and Burbridge repeating “Jaw-Juh!” in a friendly taunt to a suddenly rapid, though satisfied, audience.

While the party in Athens righteously continued at full swing (including a rollicking sit-in by Slocum at the Nowhere Bar across the street), the conclusion of this show left some slack-jawed in their contemplative appreciation. The Georgia Theatre looks and sounds great, resplendent with plush curtains and upgraded from giant, hangover-inducing draft beers to tall boys, ready for a full slate of Fall shows. In the reunion, the Aquarium Rescue Unit experience felt less like a sentimental stroll down memory lane and more of a fresh and frenzied take on the scene, sound and success that this timeless collaboration created.

Click the thumbnail for photos From the Show by Ian Rawn