Someone once told me never to miss a loved one’s birthday.
It would be inaccurate to call Col. Bruce Hampton a human; he was an other-worldly figure, a cosmic influencer, a spiritual guru responsible for the righteous path of many. If you knew him, he was the guy to call for advice—not because he had experience in business or law, but because his life’s mission was to practice reality in a way that society tells us not to. The insane flutterings that came from his mind were so on-point, you’d fly all the way to Atlanta just to have lunch with the guy, and then fly home later that day. I did that once, and took the following notes:
- To be is to do.
- There’s no reality anymore, the whole world is pro-wrestling.
- Four things that don’t make sense: babies (where do they come from), airplanes (can’t fly), television (how), and women.
- Fear is neurotic consciousness.
- You have to die before you live.
- Girls are the gauge of any successful band.
- Tuners are for cowards.
- The key to music is to be awkward at all times.
He was the kind of person to use your name “Kendall” as an adjective during an interview with a journalist, just to confuse him and me at the same time.
The last time I saw Col. Bruce Hampton before Monday night was in Macon, Georgia, where we celebrated the life of Butch Trucks. He demanded we eat at his favorite Indian restaurant in town, so we all piled into the car to go. I knew I was in the right place when I was greeted by a small man singing “Happy Birthday” upon my entrance. Col. Bruce Hampton made every day his birthday and ensured that those around him knew his connection to the stars. Of course, he was also known for guessing the birthdays of every person he encountered in this strange life–something we’ll never understand.
So when Hampton 70: A Celebration Of Col. Bruce Hampton was announced, I knew I had to attend. Even if it meant skipping my annual trip to Jazz Fest. I’ve learned over the last few months that family should always come first, especially in rock and roll.
The Fox Theater was packed to capacity with love. Friends and family from across the world filled the orchestra section; the balcony swarmed with die-hard fans. From Jimmy Herring, Warren Haynes, and Derek Trucks, to John Bell, Dave Schools, Duane Trucks, Jon Fishman, Karl Denson, and John Popper, over 30 renowned musicians gathered in Atlanta, Georgia to celebrate the life of the beloved “Grandaddy of the Jam Scene”—a legend whose impact on all those in attendance, musicians and fans alike, is inconceivably insurmountable. Col. Bruce Hampton forged the jam scene as we know it today, fearlessly leading the way and bringing others with him every step of the way. Without Col. Bruce Hampton, many of the players at Monday’s show would be without Name.
It was a complete family affair from start to finish, as Bruce’s band opened the stage to the rotating cast of legendary guests. Each one was announced with a backstory to keep the crowd informed of how they were all personally connected to the Colonel. The setlist mixed Col. Bruce originals with those of the artists on stage, along with some choice covers with profound impact.
It was especially meaningful to see Derek and Duane Trucks, Warren Haynes, Dave Schools, Jon Fishman, and the one-and-only Chuck Leavell perform the iconic Allman Brothers classic, “Jessica.” Leavell masterfully played through the piano parts as fiercely as on the original recording, and the entire room erupted in energetic jubilance. The players on the stage, the song, and the memories of Butch Trucks soared through the venue, with the star-lit canvas of the sky shining over what was truly a special performance at the Fox Theatre. I recorded “Jessica” below.
Even with all the legends that graced that stage, there was one clear star of the night: fourteen-year-old Brandon “Taz” Niederauer. I met Brandon when he was eleven-years-old at Butch Trucks’ inaugural Roots Rock Revival camp. Ever since, I have assumed the role of his big sister, even sharing an apartment with him during his transition to School of Rock: The Musical. He is at the center of my musical family, with Uncle Butch and Col. Bruce as our spiritual leaders.
Col. Bruce Hampton immediately took Taz under his wing when they met on Jam Cruise in 2014. Bruce had a sense for talent, made obvious through his musical sponsorship of Derek Trucks, Oteil Burbridge, Jimmy Herring, and countless other fearless players. His spiritual guidance was incomparably influential to these masters, as they will all tell you. Taz was his next project. Bruce taught him “no ego” early enough to forbid any sort of unnatural developments in the fame-induced atmosphere that surrounds him. The video below displays Taz’s ability at the age of twelve years old and is one of my personal favorites.
Aside from their musical connection, the two shared the camera for an independent film Here Comes Rusty last year. They were great friends, and Bruce’s last gift to Taz was to place him center stage for what will be remembered as one of the most magical, meaningful nights of rock and roll. Not only did Taz wail through three or four of the best-sounding solos of the night, but he did so between Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, his two biggest guitar heroes—quite literally a dream come true for the young guitarist—at the prompting of his mentor, Col. Bruce. Those in attendance could feel the profound power that was being passed from teacher to student.
It was during the concert’s encore when it happened. Every student of Bruce’s had gathered together to perform a joyous version of “Turn On Your Lovelight,” after fellow ARU drummer and psychedelic warrior Jeff Sipe, dressed in a long golden cloak, brigaded the Col. Bruce Hampton Military Ensemble. The intensity of the moment brought Col. Bruce Hampton to his knees, and then to the ground, his arms down at the feet of young Taz who, like the rest of his companions on stage, felt safe to assume that it was just another classic Bruce antic. Several musical minutes of pure ecstatic bliss went by, while Bruce laid there motionless. Even Derek Trucks was smiling ear-to-ear as Susan Tedeschi and Oliver Wood traded their monstrous vocals.
The photo above was taken mere mili-seconds before Col. Bruce went down. It was as if his life mission had culminated in this very moment. After taking a verse of “Lovelight”, Col. Bruce stepped back to enjoy the sounds of his children before peacefully descending. According to those on the stage, Bruce was last seen tapping his watch insinuating that it was “time to go” before he hit the ground. Taz continued to play, but the discomfort he felt while the rest of his heroes clapped in awe of his musical prowess was painfully obvious. John Popper played profusely beside him. Eventually, the stage was cleared out after an abrupt ending and a truncated “thank you,” and the curtains were drawn. Just a few hours later, word surfaced that Bruce hadn’t made it. The Colonel was gone.
There aren’t enough words in the human language to describe Col. Bruce Hampton. This night was certainly not a tragedy. While heartbreaking, it was strangely beautiful. Only the Colonel could gather the most legendary musicians of our time to celebrate his life, then leave it behind to join the stars in the sky. He had the distinct honor of playing his own memorial service—an experience no other species is capable of. It was during the encore, the very last notes, that the universe got its mojo back.
Thank you Col. Bruce Hampton, for the endless laughs, life lessons, and career-shaping wisdom you’ve shared with your musical community. The jam scene would not be anywhere that it is today without your guidance.