22 November 2008

Nedstalgia: 15 Years Ago

I've been horrible at keeping up with all the nostalgic posts I had meant to do, but couldn't let this one slide by, even if I am two weeks late.

[Download Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit playing the Paradise in Boston, MA on 12 November 1993]

See it was 15 years and 2 weeks ago that the Col. Bruce Hampton (ret.) and the Aquarium Rescue Unit returned to Boston, MA. Seemed like they came through town about once a semester and played an almost identical setlist to the same bunch of folks that about half filled a club. Yes, the situation was almost the same to the point of getting a wave of deja vu around the time Bruce introduced "Jimmy Herring from Boston, Massachusetts" somewhere between "Yield Not To Temptation" and "Basically Frightened." And yet, in the warped time/space continuum of the Aquarium Rescue Unit everything was exactly the same and yet worlds apart. It took me a while to get hip to the magic otherworld that Bruce had created with this band, the way he could take the same lump of clay and reform it again and again, the musical sleight-of-hand he employed with perhaps the greatest band of talent ever assembled.

As I walked up to the Paradise on that cold night in November, waiting in line to get in, I noticed the marquee advertised the opening band: The Dave Matthews Band. Something struck me as familiar about that... then I remembered a friend from Virginia extolling their virtues and became psyched that I'd have a chance to check them out on a certainly rare trip up north. The names of the bands that opened for ARU through the years are the names of the bands that fill many of your hard drives right now: Phish, WSP, Dave Matthews, MMW, Flecktones, Leftover Salmon... these guys weren't just supporting acts, they were disciples learning from the masters and on November 12, 1993, a hot-to-go crowd in Boston was allowed to sit in on a lecture of the highest degree.

The DMB set was about a solid opener as you could ask for. In fact, they came off as anything but a supporting act -- they were a fully formed, formidable live act and it was clear they'd be opening for no one in the near future. They had it, no doubt. The cool thing about the whole night was that they had two drum kits set up side by side the whole night. Jeff "Apt Q258" Sipe and Carter Beauford played in tandem for the entire Dave Matthews set and you can just imagine! Pound for pound, two of the hardest hidden, skin-pummeling, nasty, nasty drummers you can find, playing at the same time for extended bouts of music. Sure, there's the chance it could be too much. But it wasn't. This was no throwaway opening set, it was a leading indicator: this was going to be a special night. This was not just a concert but a celebration of what live music can be. The club was the perfect size, the crowd within it was tuned in, the caliber of music was of the highest quality from the first hit of the opening set. The tapes were rolling right of the SBD so we'd still be able to listen to it 15 years later. Sometimes the stars are aligned and if you're lucky, you're standing there with your thighs banging against the stage to every single note.

The ARU set started off in standard fashion. Their shows were like Choose Your Own Adventure books, where the first couple of pages were always the same story and then before you knew it there was a point at which things would diverge. The thing was, though, that they were the ones doing the choosing, and that quite often the new directions had no root in the physical universe. Standard blues and bluegrass would explode in fractals of jazz and jam, musicians would appear and disappear from the stage, the bassist became the lead guitarist or lead vocalist... and then things would get really weird. Somehow, going into an ARU show I was always incredibly excited to see Oteil play and not even think about Jimmy or that wicked, wild drummer, the Apt Q258... but in about 2 songs time I had the same thought: "man, I forgot how fucking amazing Jimmy Herring is!" Eventually, I was able to remember past the encore and came to be the sycophantic Herring nut I am today, but for a while it was actually quite nice to be blown away again and again like it was the first time.

Anyway, so the band is grooving and doing all their nutty ARU things. Bruce was especially active on his "chazoid" (a kind of cross between a guitar and a mandolin that Bruce would play with his fingers, a slide or any other crazy shit he would pull out of his pocket) that night and you can hear he is constantly engaged with Jimmy and Oteil, which wasn't always the case. It was hot shit, but really, there'd been no way to pull out that first 45 minutes and say it was any better or worse than the last time they'd come through town. Then, at some point, Carter comes back out, kinda just snuck up on stage. I can't recall exactly when it was, but by Time Is Free, he's up there and like a little spark to a pile of dry leaves, shit just got combustible. We're not talking about just a little campfire, nosiree, things exploded into full-on book-burning caliber bonfire, consuming ever bit of sanity in its path. The 258/Beauford combination which had gotten its practice work in during the opening stanza were as locked in as any two drummers I'd ever seen or ever seen since. That Time Is Free is what I'd call a definitive version, just totally epic. Jimmy's as raw as ever and just banging back and forth between the two drummers in what feels like a 5 minute pure-climax orgy of notes that finally gives way to the requisite Oteil bass solo. That bumbles and builds and almost lets the fire die until the two beatmeisters return to the pulse and it explodes once or twice more. Totally exhilarating.

Of course, this was just the beginning. Next they bring up (the late) Leroi Moore on saxophone to join in the fun as they slink their way into the Sun Ra phantasmagoria Zambi/Space Is the Place. Under Bruce Hampton's tutelage, the Aquarium Rescue Unit always created just the right amount of musical space. They could expand or shrink the sound as much as necessary seemingly at will. Almost every time I saw them, there was a different collection of musicians, either in the core unit or with a variety of guests and yet it was always the right group at that certain moment. When Moore hops on stage, the sound grows, the right moments get stretched out, the music gets a little more focused and a hell of a lot more jazzy. Later on, when Boyd Tinsley joins in, they elongated over a completely different axis and got down with a totally down-country "Fixin' To Die." That was the thing -- there weren't 3 dimensions in the ARU universe, well, unless there had to be 3. Sometimes there were 12 and sometimes there were just 1 or 2. They were the original string theory and there were never too many guitars. Moore brought a sultry, grooving saxophone to Zambi and, listening to the recording I've heard again and again, seems 100% right in place as he leads the band through a short jam and a perfect segue into the Space Is the Place section. The band perfectly encapsulates the saxophone, it's like it was always there and always meant to be there.

The jam melts away into a more extended drum section where Sipe and Carter really go at it once more time before closing out the entire section with a wild, egg-to-strings Col. Bruce chazoid belch... something that probably needs to be seen to be appreciated in full. Finally, the band, as if coaxed through telepathy, pulses as one underneath Bruce's insanity, counting out beats in the perfect syncopated countermeasure to the chazoid's self-possessed meandering. Next thing we knew, we had passed through the looking glass, the band had gone from silky smooth saxophone jazz to free-flowing Sun Ra weirdness and came out whitewashed in an uptempo bluegrass jam as Fixin To Die. Tinsley has joined them on stage and it's a ARU-style hoedown... which is to say a totally freaky, up-is-down bluegrass jam.

That whole 3 or 4 song stretch (depending on how you count) was and is the perfect embodiment of what the Aquarium Rescue Unit stood for. There were rules, but the main one was that there were no rules. Seeing a show like this wasn't just a concert experience --yes, it was amazing on just a music-being-played showcase, but it was also a seminar in what live music means and a field trip into the unknown. The next thing you know Oteil is dedicating a song to "Curious George... the monkey" and you're not sure if Col. Bruce Hampton is just some wild, fictional mind trip. Fun while it lasted, but wait, where was I??

Anyway, it's fun to go back and listen to this show and to think about how things turned out for so many of the players on the stage that night. Like a breeze to a dandelion, the seeds have floated all over the music world and made their own little universes almost always for the better and most certainly deeply influenced by nights like that one in Boston.


Anonymous said...

Happy 15 years of knowing ya! And the squeeze.

-benjie t

neddy said...

Been some good ones, for sure BT.