11 May 2008

Nedstalgia: 15 Years Ago

Download Col. Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit
11 May 1993 -- Cambridge, MA
part 1 part 2

It may surprise you to know that I saw bands besides Phish back when I was young, foolish and burly-bearded. Just tough to remember them all by date, etc. and rarer still that recordings are available to coax me through this. Although, it was tough to escape the gravity pull of the Vermont foursome, as you'll see. No, 15 years ago this evening, I was still successfully avoiding school work, back in Boston and getting my Zambi on with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. For a while there, it seemed the circadian rhythms of my live music going ticked to the periodic visits from Col. Bruce and company. I'll save the full-blown extolling of the virtues of an ARU show for another edition of Nedstalgia. For now, suffice it to say, the band came through town like clockwork twice a year and there was no way I'd miss them.

My first real Aquarium Rescue Unit show took me later than I'd have liked to Nightstages, a now-defunct Cambridge club. It was merely a week since seeing these guys rip it up with Phish on stage in Albany and I was psyched to get my full doctor-prescribed dose up-front-and-personal. The venue was about half-filled, but as I would learn over the next couple of years, there are very few people who make it to an ARU show by accident. The crowd was loose and due for a good time. This incarnation of the band still carried Matt Mundy on 'lectric Womandolin and Count Mbutu on percussion to round out the basic nucleus of Hampton/Burbridge/258/Herring.

It took me a little while to truly appreciate the magic of this band. The way they encapsulated everything that was pure and good about live music. That night, I was mostly just having a really great time. The level of freedom just blew me away that night and I became a lifelong fan by midway through the set. Listening to the tracks now, I can picture the room, the kinetic energy of the band, barely on a stage in front of the crowd. How much of what I was hearing that night I actually got and how much was just me being sucked in by the pure musicianship, the bisection of tightness and looseness that they tightrope-walked, the pure comedy of Col. Bruce (Jimmy Herring isn't really from Boston, Massachusetts, is he?) I couldn't say. All I can attest to is that I was dancing from note #1 and kept it up until the wee hours.

Then, somewhere towards mid-set, someone tapped me on the shoulder and gave me the "look over yonder" look while I was dancing. I gave a look in yonder's direction and standing right next to me was none other than Jon Fishman. Didn't I just leave you guys? A quick look-around of the room revealed that Mike Gordon was also hanging out, not as close to the music, but certainly digging it. That was the first of what would be regular sightings of those guys, especially Mike who was local at the time and had no qualms about getting out to see live music. That was very cool. Of course, it would take 3 more ARU shows with the two of us in attendance before he would get the nerve to jump on stage... with mediocre results, but that's a story for another time.

Fishman, on the other hand, was game for anything. I'll never forget dancing to ARU next to that guy -- weird because he he was wearing "civilian" attire, dancing like the goofy Syracuse-raised Jew he was, and because he was much shorter from that proximity than I remembered. Anyway, one moment he's dancing there, big fat tour's-over grin on his face, the next he's up on stage playing on Mbutu's percussion kit. Then my first taste of the surreality of Col. Bruce came to pass. You see, something about Bruce Hampton makes weird shit go down. The band is jamming in total full-Unit trance with Fishman laying into it and having a blast and some guy -- either a Nightstage employee or promoter or manager -- appears before the stage with a vacuum in his hand. Not an Electrolux, mind you, or anything even approximating that... it was, if I recall correctly, a little hand-held DirtDevil with a hose attachment on it. I kind of laughed at the sight of this guy holding it up in front of Fishman, almost cringing with embarrassment for the fella; that is, until I saw Jon's eyes light up and quickly grab for the thing. We truly were in bizarro world -- or should I say Zambiland? -- as Fishman played a mini-vacuum solo (mini is both the size of the vacuum and the size of the solo). Of course, the rest of the band is not fazed by this at all. I can only imagine what it is that might have given them pause back then, but it would have had to have been something utterly intergalactically nutty to get Jimmy or Oteil to break stride. Space is the place, baby... no doubt. Crazy, listening back to this, the vacuum solo seems so much more at place in the middle of an Aquarium Rescue Unit than anywhere else; this is downright psychedelic.

The rest of the show is pretty damn good. Highlights from my latter day listen are certainly the trippy "Elevator to the Moon" and the outerlimits Zambi. It's great to listen to this old school ARU, though, the raw energy of Jimmy's guitar playing... he was always sickness, but he's come a long way since those old training-with-Yoda days. Egads, this guitar solo in Time Is Free is, um, not sure I have the word for it. "Sick"? That'll do. The presence of Mundy gave the old school Aquarium Rescue Unit a real bluegrass dimension it kind of evolved out of in later years. But the Herring/Mundy/Hampton/Oteil guitar/mandolin/chazoid/bass string-o-rama brings thing to another dimension completely. Listening to that, you understand why these guys had a song called "Too Many Guitars" on their 2nd album. But that had to be tongue in cheek. There was never too many of anything at an ARU show.

And nothing ever that was too out either. The Zambi/Space Is the Place (DirtDevil solo inclusive) got things to that early-morning place that only these guys knew how to coax out of a small crowd and probably was enough to send us on our way -- a good 90 minutes of uninterrupted extraterrestrial travel. But the crowd was persistent for an encore and were granted one of the odder extra-stanzas I've seen when Mbutu and Sipe came back out with Oteil on drumsticks and they just played a little three-way drum/percussion solo. Weird, but still: more please.


Wag said...

BY the way, Fishman isn't Jewish - Mike is.

neddy said...

That's news to me. Jewish or not, he had a Bar Mitzvah in the same building that I had mine and his father is a dentist named Fishman. I stand by my original assertion.