HIGH FREQUENCIES: There was a time
Col. Bruce Hampton at the Vista Room album released
Joeff Davis/CL File
On any given Thursday night, or so some took for granted, you could find the late Col. Bruce Hampton at his weekly gig at the Vista Room, leading the Madrid Express and the cast of regulars (the Zambi All-Stars) sitting in, through a maze of musical montages that were as mesmerizing as they were meaningful for those who made the weekly pilgrimage.
In the last decades of his 50-year musical career, Hampton ascended as the grandfather of the jam band movement. And while that sometimes meant his shows could be loose and meandering, that was not the case for the performances captured on the just-released Ropeadope 12-inch vinyl and CD, Col. Bruce Hampton & the Madrid Express Live at the Vista Room. The band is tight and grooving. And Hampton? Hampton sounds as inspired and energetic as he did at half his age.
The CD kicks off with Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” a prescient interplay among the musicians that is adventurous and unyielding, setting the bar high for the rest of the album. For 11 songs — and now, eternity — Hampton, the Madrid Express, and the Zambi All-Stars don’t let up. The Colonel’s long-known take on “Fixin’ To Die” is up next, shifting the band into a “blues grass” mode. It’s not quite bluegrass, certainly not just the blues, but with the horn section providing an assortment of dirty accents, “Fixin’ To Die” is a celebratory look at what lies ahead for all of us.
Three songs from the Colonel’s last album, Pharoah’s Kitchen, are included here, given extensive re-workings and extended jams: “The Grogans Have Arrived,” “Don’t Go In That Room,” and “Right Now.” “Grogans” is typical Hampton, you’re not sure if the subject matter is dinner guests or interplanetary visitors. The revivalist tone of “Right Now,” with its opening line and refrain, “Let your savior bless your soul right now,” is built upon in this live version, reinforced by phrasings from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” during the lap steel solo. That Hampton replaces the lyric “savior” with “Zambi” — in acknowledgement of the veneration for Joseph E. Zambie by Hampton and the multitudes of musicians he’s influenced — only propagates the doctrines Hampton created for his followers. “Don’t Go In That Room” is another Hampton cautionary tale. Is it the truth or consequences that lie beyond that door? Indeed, with musical quotes from Sun Ra’s “We Travel the Spaceways,” the limitless possibilities on the other side of the threshold are made clear. That Hampton adds lines from the Hampton Grease Band song “Six” makes it prophetic.
It’s on the covers that the interpretive qualities of the Colonel’s vocal phrasings are most evident, songs Hampton has sung hundreds of times, but are still expressive. “I’m So Glad,” here a trumpet rave-up, is further propelled with Hampton’s vocals taking the Skip James song into another orbit, one light years away from the original. Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” is no longer a lament, but a vamp, the protagonist’s view more a reconciliation with the outcome. Conversely, James Brown’s “There Was A Time” is not rueful, but an angry look back, spitting a goodbye to the past and all it stood for.
Hampton is the focus here, but it’s the Madrid Express and the Zambi All-Stars who allow him to shine. While the musicians lay down a rock solid foundation, Hampton is free to go out, but, interestingly enough, he doesn’t do so as often as you might expect. Instead, he plays it close to the heart, his singing capturing how well he’s mastered his vocals over the years, the elder statesman satisfied with his position, rather than a singer looking to win, place or show.
In the years leading up to his Oak Grove residency, Hampton had repeatedly said he wanted to find a place he could call home, a place where he could work on his craft, a place where he could mentor and nurture the musicians who sought to commune with him. He was lucky to find it at the Vista Room, just as Atlanta was fortunate that the venue’s Mike Rizzi understood what the Colonel, and the city, needed.
At the intro to “Basically Frightened,” the song that became the theme to his existence, Hampton, in his best lounge act repartee, says to the audience of his open-ended residency, “We’ll be here for about six Thursdays in a row. Please come back and see us, because …” and he starts singing.
Six. Six Thursdays. He’s already reprised a verse from “Six,” a song from the Hampton Grease Band’s Music To Eat, an album he never revisits, and now this? A quick look at a calendar and the count of six. After these tracks were recorded March 16, 2017, it was six Thursdays Hampton played at the Vista Room before his untimely passing.
“Good Night, Irene” closes out the set — and the album. The sincerity of the original is juxtaposed with the trademark Hampton-esque absurdist flourishes the have made him an enigmatic entity for so long. And that’s it. The song fades out all too quick. Before it can build to a climactic ending, there’s silence. There’s nothing left but silence.
And, as we learned at the Fox Theater during the “Hampton At 70” all-star celebration, six weeks after this recording was made, Hampton’s silence is deafening.
A moment in history dept. … There are moments that define a time. A place. A generation. The Kennedy Assassination. The day Elvis Died. The Challenger space shuttle disaster. The slow speed car chase through Los Angeles of a white Ford Bronco, O.J. Simpson crouched low in the passenger seat, holding a gun to his head. That date was June 17, 1994.
It’s a date I remember well. For two hours it seemed like the whole world was watching that white Ford Bronco wind its way through the city’s maze of interstates, viewers wondering how it would end. Would O.J. succumb to his own gun? Would there be a shoot out, full-scale Hollywood style, in real life?
Grant Lee Buffalo was playing the Point in Little Five Points that night. It was a much more urgent matter. The Los Angeles three-piece had released Fuzzy the year before and this was the first chance many in Atlanta had a chance to see the band live. Theirs’ was an energetic-blend of American rock ’n’ roll with songs that told stories far from the norm. They seemed out-of-place with most bands of the day. Intelligent, well-crafted songs that explored the depths of emotions in relationships, the historical past, and current events, songwriter Grant Lee Phillips wasn’t protesting as much as raging against a complacency just beginning to overrun this country.
Mighty Joe Moon, released before the end of ’94, continued with Phillips’ astute observations on the downward turn of a society living in excess. Grant Lee Buffalo survived for two albums more and a total of five years, just long enough to establish Phillips as a songwriter with a keen understanding of the American condition, earning him praise as being a worthy successor to John Stewart, whose critical eye documented in song so much of life and politics in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Americana, you might call it.
Phillips has continued to forge his own songwriting path since the breakup of Grant Lee Buffalo in 1999. With eight solo albums to his credit, the most recent being The Narrows in 2016, Phillips continues to be a modern troubadour of the times, not unlike that recurring role he had on “The Gilmore Girls,” weaving songs that permeate the listener’s consciousness while reflecting the realities of the day. Phillips plays Eddie’s Attic this Friday night, Oct. 27.
Hey there brother dept. … This weekend marks the return of Danny “Mudcat” Dudeck and the Atlanta Horns to the Northside Tavern. Both nights will feature vocalist Mandi Strachota joining them onstage, performing selections from her just-released album, Unleashed. Friday night Beverly “Guitar” Watkins is a special guest, fresh from her appearance on “HARRY,” Harry Connick, Jr.’s new Fox Television talk show. Joining Mudcat on bass for the weekend will be his old friend Cool John Ferguson, who Taj Mahal calls “one of the five greatest living guitar players.” As for himself, Mudcat who also plays acoustic gigs at the Northside most Wednesday nights, says, he’s “at a good place, writing new tunes, making new noises, and standing on the years behind me and the deep teachers and lessons” from which he’s learned so much.
Tony Paris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org since you already know he doesn’t answer his Facebook messages.