This Wednesday’s show will be fascinating, historic and possibly polarizing. If you really like to stick close to good old country, folk and bluegrass, this week may not be your thing. But it’ll be cool. Because of the chemistry and lineage involved. There’s a coherent theme here, even if I wouldn’t know how to name it. The whole show was curated by our friend Jeff Mosier of the Mosier Brothers and Blueground Undergrass. The connecting thread is the profound, whimsical and largely unknown influence of our guest of honor: Col. Bruce Hampton.
Either you’ve heard of Col. Bruce and are of the tribe, or you’re shaking your head wondering who I’m talking about. If that’s the case, let me fill you in on a wild chapter of American music. Wikipedia IDs him as an “American surrealist musician,” but that’s a little over the top. He’s creative and weird, but he’s not all avant-garde. He plays electric guitar and sings, sometimes in made-up languages. He takes off on eccentric but harmless little trips, but he seems to always bring everything home. He’s a party of a man and a slightly bent philosopher. And he’s one of the epic personalities in rock and roll.
What’s impossible to dismiss about Col. Bruce is the caliber of musicians he attracts as band members and counts as close friends and collaborators. Perhaps his greatest band, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, included guitarist Jimmy Herring, who’d later take over Jerry Garcia’s spot in The Dead, drumming master Jeff Sipe and bassist Otiel Burbridge, who was once a guest on Roots with Barry Waldrep and John Cowan. And perhaps most consequentially, he’s been a mentor – nay, a GURU – to some of the biggest names in improv rock, including the members of Phish, Widespread Panic and slide master Derek Trucks.
It’s all told in the new documentary Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Col. Bruce Hampton, which recently premiered in the Colonel’s home town of Atlanta. As you can see from the trailer, Col. Bruce has the admiration of Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden, R.E.M. member Peter Buck, actor/director Billy Bob Thornton and others, including the aforementioned Jeff Mosier. Jeff’s one of many who say he’d not be a musician today were it not for Col. Bruce. And what did Hampton offer him? He calls it freedom – to play banjo without having to compete with Earl Scruggs in some imagined contest of adequacy – freedom to be a MUSICIAN who happens to plays banjo.
Now you may remember the Mosier Brothers from our Feb. 18 show, when they rocked our barn with friendly, danceable jazz-grass. They’ll be back to act as sort of anchors, and yet even with all that talent, I’ve not yet talked about the act set to close the show. Their inconspicuous name is The Ghent Legacy, but wait until you hear this. Aubrey Ghent is one of the most important figures in the sacred steel movement, which is funky gospel played on pedal or lap steel guitar. Launched in churches, it’s long since moved into halls and arenas, most famously in the hands of Robert Randolph. Aubrey’s son who goes by AJ or J Wunder will probably steal the whole show. Says Jeff Mosier: “This kid is shocking. It’s like Jerry Douglas, Paul Franklin or Bill Frisell. He stands with a lap steel slung over his shoulder with a smile on his face like he just won the lottery and he does impeccable slide solos.” Get to know J Wunder a bit in this charming video.
So I’ve gotten this far without mentioning “jam band” music, because I’ve found lots of Americana fans tense up at the term, and I’ve never loved it anyway. But there’s no doubt that you’ll find more love for Col. Bruce and his cohort over at JamBase.com and in the pages of Relix magazine than anywhere else. I prefer to think of what he and his associates do as improvisation-friendly jazz/rock fusion. Yes, many of my roots music loving friends are chiefly in it for the song, and they feel like too much soloing detracts from the song. But I love instrumentalists who have something to say and bands built on the kind of respect it takes to back up a soloist and let a tune find a new path in real time.
So all that is to say that this week at the Loveless Barn, Roots and Jam will make peace. Anybody who attends or listens in will help build a bridge between the world of Important Lyrics and the world of Musical Whimsy. There will be plenty of sitting in and crossing up of the groups, so it’ll be unpredictable, like music is supposed to be.