In the late 1980’s, Col. Bruce Hampton, brought forth a movement known as "Zambi" to fans in the Atlanta area. Going relatively unnoticed by most of the world, Hampton and his Aquarium Rescue Unit earned a reputation amongst those in the know as one of the most amazing musical ensembles to ever grace a stage.
Members of Widespread Panic were among their fans in the early days. The camaraderie of the two bands was readily apparent, especially during shows that featured the famed “Segue Jams,” which would find members of Panic slowly taking the stage during the end of ARU’s sets. By the time all of Panic took the stage, ARU would step down one at a time, and, suddenly, what was the end of one band’s set had morphed into the beginning the other's.
When Hampton left the band in 1994, citing health concerns, ARU soldiered on, adding new members Kofi Burbridge (keyboards and flute) and Paul Henson (vocals). While the band continued to tour, with many musical highs each night, things were just never the same without the Col. leading the way.
During his second “retirement,” Hampton founded the now defunct Fiji Marines, then joined Bobby Lee Rodgers in The Codetalkers. By the time the remaining members of ARU parted ways, members of the Unit were flooded with offers to join numerous bands. Bassist Oteil Burbridge joined the Allman Brothers, and later helped found both Vida Blue and the Peacemakers, while his brother Kofi joined the Derek Trucks Band.
Jimmy Herring was, perhaps, the most sought after ARU alumni. In addition to touring with Trucks in his “spare time,” bands such as The Allman Brothers, Frogwings, and Jazz Is Dead all called upon Herring to fill the role of lead guitar. Eventually Herring became a permanent member of Phil Lesh and Friends, where he earned his due as one of the premiere players of his time, before joining The Other Ones, who eventually resurrected themselves as The Dead.
While those three members of the ARU spent time touring the globe, it was drummer Jeff Sipe who remained closest to home, carrying on the ways of Zambi for increasingly larger audiences. After a brief stint as a member of Leftover Salmon, Sipe would return to Atlanta, leading an annual holiday event known as the Zambiland Orchestra. To this day, Sipe continues to carry the Zambi flag, performing as a member of Grease Factor, along side fellow ARU alumni Count M’butu.
During the recent Moon Mountain Zambi Music Festival in Cleveland, GA, Grease Factor was joined by a huge cast of Zambiland regulars, including Jeff Coffin (the Flecktones), Jonas Hellborg (who performed a stunning set with Sipe and Paul Hanson, on bassoon), Donna Hopkins, Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, and The Derek Trucks Band (who stole the show in their return to America after a hugely successful tour of Japan). The entire weekend was a phenomenal reminder of the truly eclectic nature of all that is Zambi, and served as perfect warm up for the reunion the entire Zambi nation has long awaited.
On October 20, 2004, at the one and only Georgia Theatre, Zambi’s fabled master plan comes to fruition as the Aquarium Rescue Unit, complete with ringleader Col. Bruce in tow. In days gone by, this band’s musical mayhem went largely unnoticed, with but a faithful few on hand to bare witness. Now that the second coming is upon us, an entire nation awaits.
For many, it will be their first live ARU experience. To those, I say hold on tight; you’re in for the ride of your life.