Col. Bruce Hampton and The Quark Alliance
The Downtown Tavern
April 13, 2012
In the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias,” Robert Hunter wrote “Once in awhile you get shown the light in the strangest places if you look at it right.” This was the case last Friday when Col. Bruce Hampton and his latest Alliance of Quarks rolled into The Tavern, a small, barely lit bar on Broad Street in the small Alabama city of Gadsden â€“ a town best known for its Civil War history, a 90 foot waterfall and being the beginning point of the world’s longest yard sale.
Bruce makes a habit out of stopping at The Tavern. As he says, “any place that will have me, I am glad to be, man.” That is the humble essence of Bruce, a man that has never lost the glimmer for the art that he holds nearest and dearest.
Hampton has been a magnetic figure since the earliest of days, when his stage persona was so strangely crazed that many attributed it to a drug-addled state in spite of the fact that Hampton states he “has never even smoked a joint.” He has a heart of gold, the mind of a mathematical magician, and the soul of a child.
These character assets â€“ coupled with creative genius and an unmatched eye for talent â€“ give him a permanent seat at the head of any jam table, no matter who is dining.
A week after the sold-out Atlanta Film Festival debuted Basically Frightened, the Hampton documentary that finds Mike Gordon, Derek Trucks, Dave Matthews, Billy Bob Thornton, John Bell and probably 20 more assisting in profiling their hero, Bruce and The Quark Alliance found themselves playing to The Tavern house of approximately 50 patrons.
But for Bruce, a man who embodies the work ethic of the greatest generation, success has never been measured in numbers. This became immediately clear as the night progressed and the band offered up a show that was, for this writer, easily the best in nearly a year or possibly more.
From the moment the show began, Zambie â€“ the enigmatic school of spiritual thought that Hampton encountered in the 1970s and the source that he credits for virtually all of his inspirations â€“ was out in full force. From lyrical insertions of the term itself to improvised phrases that were clearly of Zambie origin, the fact that the spirit was unveiled so close to the onset immediately indicuated that the evening would be a delightfully layered experience with no leader, only a man at the helm…Col. Bruce.
Backing their Colonel was jazz drummer Kinah Boto, pianist Jez Graham and lap steel guitarist A.J. Ghent.Â With this trio, Hampton has found his strongest backfield since the days when Jimmy Herring and Matt Mundy were trading licks while Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Sipe held down the fort with a rhythm section as jaw dropping as it was steadfast.
With A.J. Ghent, Bruce has once again proven that his eye for emerging talent is enough to make Clive Davis blush. Though he does not play the pedals like his legendary father Aubrey, some say that he is “the next Robert Randolph.” This is a disservice to the young Florida native, because he’s better.
Ghent, who also goes by the name J. Wunder, plays the lap steel in such a manner that one would swear that he was born holding one. He can fall into the mix equally as well as he can stand tall with a standoff-scene-in-Reservoir-Dogs like intensity, slaying any witness with his Gold Tone eight stringed gun.
Playing alongside Col. Bruce, a forefather of improvisational music, repeated permission was given for freewheeling yet fully controlled improvisational steel majesty. At every opportunity, Ghent executed his delivery duties to the point that he placed himself in a category above all in his field and adequately demonstrated why Warren Haynes had been caught with his jaw down the week previous, when Bruce unleashed the Wunder on the Allmans at the Beacon.
As noted earlier, the Zambie spirit was at hand in the smoke-filled dark saloon from the gig’s inception, and it seemed that Bruce had a singular mission: to pass a piece of it to the each receptive soul.
Opting to hit the high spots with well-known numbers including “I’m So Glad,” “Basically Frightened,” “Fixin’ to Die” and “Space is the Place,” familiarity was the path of least resistance and by the time that the first hour had passed, the proverbial fat had been trimmed in the room and those that remained were fully in tune with their Colonel.
The awe-inspiring fluidity of the jams flowed seamlessly from within the closed-eyed front man who was once known for his vibrant stage persona, and each number was played with stellar precision and a level of skilled improvisation absent in many ensembles. The collective Quark unit was as aligned as Orion’s belt.
After a series of peaks, valleys, lulls and shoves, the natural progression signaled that the show was winding to a close, but before it did, the Bruce of old came out for a visit.
As the show closed with a final extended jam, Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret. hopped out of his chair, waved goodbye to the crowd and walked out the front door of the club. The entire place erupted louder than one could imagine 50 people doing.
Abruptly returning, Bruce summoned to the stage presence of old, conducting the band, making the gestures, facial expressions and contortions that caused crowds to fall head over feet for the Colonel 20 years ago at HORDE stops across the country.Â Something special had just taken place, and everybody in the room knew it â€“ most of all, Col. Bruce. The small gathering had been taken on a journey and simultaneously given a beginner’s lesson in Zambie.
In speaking with Hampton afterward, he couldn’t explain why it had happened the way that it had. For all anyone knew, the Friday the 13th date had something to do with it. In the end, the “why” didn’t truly matter anyway.
As tabs were paid and items were gathered, one thought was repetitive: there wasn’t even a cover charge. But retrospectively for those that were there, they would have paid whatever the asking price was.They had been shown the “light” that Hunter wrote of.Â The strange place?Â A small town bar… and it was good.
The night proved that some things cannot be orchestrated…only cultivated, through purely organic means.
How many times have you hit a show with an immaculate billing and walked out wondering what all the hype was about? If the spirit is not there, magic cannot happen. On this night, magic happened because the spirit was in the room, guided by able hands.
It wasn’t just any spirit, and the hands weren’t just any old hands.Â It was the spirit of Zambie, in the hands of Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret.
Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from the show by Shehi…
(Follow Honest Tune on Facebook)