Bruce Hampton, 1947-2017

In the end, the spectacular finale of his last night on earth will become the legend, overshadowing the scattered but often significant details of his life. It’s still only hours after he exhaled his last breath, and I can already see that scenario happening. But in fairness, it’s completely understandable. While the sudden loss is sad and unsettling, you do have to admit: no one could’ve ever imagined a more perfect sendoff.

On the night of Monday, May 1st, 2017, after a full, rousing evening of performances by and tributes from an array of notable musicians (members of Widespread Panic, Phish, R.E.M., Tedeschi Trucks, Gov’t Mule, Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ and Blues Traveler among them) at a completely sold out Fox Theatre, during the encore (the very last song of the night, “Turn On Your Love Light”) Bruce Hampton – the reason for the celebration, on the occasion of his 70th birthday (technically the previous day), and a partaker throughout the show – collapsed onstage. To the shock of the musicians and audience, it soon became apparent that this was not some sort of James Brown-esque over-the-top put-on. Hampton was rushed to the hospital, and died a few hours later.

Those who were there are still shaking their heads in disbelief. Other Atlantans who woke up to all the Facebook posts Tuesday morning were stunned. It made many national news reports. This surreal event will be talked about for ages. And it’s been said many times by now, but it bears repeating: Bruce left us doing what he loved. How many souls can that be said about? He was playing music, surrounded by great friends and great musicians, during one very special night in honor of him, his music and inspiring nature. It’s a tragic loss, but in a way, it could not have been more perfect, and you have to take comfort in that.

For most of his life, it seems to me that Hampton was more known of than actually known, even around Atlanta. In terms of the pop culture mainstream, he remained a fringe operator ’til the end, albeit one that motivated a bevy of fellow musicians, mostly younger ones, many of whom went on to bigger things. He anchored a dizzying array of ensembles over the years, most of which – other than the notorious psych/blues/rock coulda beens Hampton Grease Band (late ‘60s-early ‘70s) and genre-juggling Southern jammers Aquarium Rescue Unit (late ‘80s-early ‘90s) – you’ve probably never heard of, let alone heard. As was his custom, while he was the “leader,” per se, he mostly took to the background during performances, blending in as best he could, allowing the other players to go off and flourish and shine.

I first became aware of Bruce in the early ’80s, when I was first discovering and diving into the local Atlanta music scene in a big way. This was his Late Bronze Age period, when their shows would morph into bizarre performance art detours. I fondly recall being weirded out and amused by a few of those zany gigs. To be honest, he sorta lost my interest several years later upon his embrace by the resurgent jam scene as some sort of symbolic/iconic obscure grandpa (and his reciprocal embrace of that scene – it was, after all, the most notoriety he’d ever experienced). I stuck with the ARU for a while there, but the focus was shifting too far toward the jams and solos and technical expertise. I’m sure I’ve missed some unforgettable shows in the years since, but it just wasn’t my thing. I couldn’t even tell you the last time I saw Bruce Hampton perform. Oh, wait… yes I can. It was the Hampton Grease Band reunion show at the Variety in 2006.

But I always loved running into Bruce. I didn’t know him well, but I of course interviewed him several times over the years, and I was constantly fascinated (as were many) by his stories, recollections, observations and anecdotes. He kind of struck me as being from another world – and I don’t mean that in some cosmic, hippie-trippy guru sort of way. I just mean that he seemed removed from the modern world, in large part. Out of place. Out of time. For one thing, he was always genuinely nice and humble. That often seems rare anymore. And I’ll never forget that nearly every time I encountered him, which was usually randomly, he’d make a point to tell me about some hotshot young musician he’d discovered and was taking under his wing. That, in the end, is probably the man’s greatest legacy, as far as the micro and macro music world goes. His enthusiasm about music, and encouragement of fresh, fledgling musicians, never waned. A tireless player, he was still gigging weekly at the Vista Room, a small neighborhood joint near Toco Hills, in the months leading up to that big 7-0 shindig.

I’d like to hope it wasn’t just Panic’s involvement that led to that Fox show selling out, but it probably was. Even so, what a helluva farewell. And I know, as modest as Bruce could be, and as quick as he always was to divert the spotlight to the players around him, he had to have been entirely tickled and bewildered by the turnout and participants and reception. He may’ve even been a little proud of what he’d inspired.

So long, Colonel, and thanks for always making life in Atlanta a little more interesting.