Slinging his guitar behind his head, Col. Bruce Hampton — one of Atlanta's most bizarre musical treasures — thrashes the instrument to the crowd's delight. Once the extended jam winds its way to a climatic close, Hampton takes a drag from an imaginary cigarette, miraculously puffing a smoke ring from his pursed lips.
He comes off as more of an eccentric uncle than a music legend, but history can't take away Hampton's status as the latter. And just three months away from his 70th birthday, the Dixie-fried answer to Frank Zappa cements this fact as he and his band continue an open-ended, weekly residency at the Vista Room in Oak Grove.
“A Col. Bruce show brings a lot of joy and excitement,” said Vista Room co-owner Mike Rizzi, “especially in the world we live in right now. You forget about things when you walk through the door.”
While Hampton's shows may be something special for the new neighborhood music venue, it also marks a special era for Hampton himself. This run comes after a long and influential career, spanning nearly 50 years.
“As far as the colonel goes, he’s a legend,” said Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ frontman Kevn Kinney, who credits R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck for turning him on to Hampton back in the late 1980s. “People don’t understand how far back he goes. … He’s just the ultimate showman. He’s our P.T. Barnum. You never know when he’s going to pop out of the jack in the box.”
Hampton first popped onto the scene in the late 1960s, fronting the avant garde, blues-influenced Hampton Grease Band. The band became a staple on the infamous Peachtree Street Strip, which rivaled Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco as a hippie hub. The Grease Band soon became known for its over-the-top performances. A good portion of this came from Hampton himself, who liberally broke rules with boundary-pushing sensibilities years before punk rock and Andy Kaufman. And thanks to the Grease Band’s impromptu performances in Piedmont Park, it opened the door for acts including the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band to take the stage in the urban green space.
Although the Hampton Grease Band's sole album, 1971's "Music to Eat," went on to achieve cult status, the band broke up in 1973. Hampton continued with a solo career, recording and performing for the next 15 years before forming Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit.
By the early 1990s, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, with its blend of progressive rock, jazz and funk, eclipsed the popularity and recognition found by the Grease Band some two decades earlier. Hampton soon became an esteemed elder statesman on the jam scene, with acolytes ranging from Widespread Panic to Blues Traveler. In 1992, Hampton and company helped create the H.O.R.D.E. Tour, the jam band answer to Lollapalooza.
Although the Aquarium Rescue Unit disbanded in 1997, Hampton has continued to lead a variety of outfits, from the Fiji Mariners to the Codetalkers and today’s Madrid Express. His film work includes the 2012 documentary “Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton.” Yet, his appearance in the 1996 Academy Award-winning film “Sling Blade” still ranks as a career highlight.
“With film, you can cheat, lie and do 40 takes until you get it right,” said Hampton, whose film work was recently celebrated at City Winery with a wine tasting paired with Hampton’s cinematic highlights. “A good editor can make you look good or bad. It’s a whole different thing, and I like them both. Film’s just another discipline. You sit around for eight hours, then all of a sudden you’re in the NBA finals.”
As he closes in on 70, Hampton seems less concerned with big game performances than simply enjoying his ability to still draw audiences. And he shares his love of performance with a rotating roster of notable musical luminaries.
Hampton first explored this concept back in the 1990s at the Brandy House on Roswell Road. His regular performances often found esteemed guests slipping onstage. Members of the Grateful Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, the Allman Brothers Band and others often sat in.
“Seeing him at the Brandy House was my favorite thing that he used to do,” Kinney said. “It’s great seeing him in a little bar.”
Rizzi, co-owner of the Vista Room, also caught many of Hampton’s Brandy House shows. Just before Rizzi and his partner, Sean Keenan — he owns Napoleon’s Grill next door — opened the Vista Room in October, Rizzi thought of Hampton. He told a mutual friend of theirs that he’d like to talk to the musician about appearing at the new venue.
“My friend said, ‘It’s so funny you mention him. I was just talking to him, and he said he had a dream that he played the Vista Room,’” Rizzi said. “And the Vista wasn’t even opened. I was shocked by that.”
So Rizzi met with Hampton, who had been spending years looking for a club setting to call home. After impressing the musician with the new digs, Rizzi rolled out the red carpet for Hampton, offering him a regular, fresh-out-of-the-box performance spot.
“It’s perfect,” Hampton said. “It has great sound, great parking, and the owners are amazing. It’s about music, and everyone’s in it for the right reasons.”
Not only does the residency offer Hampton and his band a familiar place to settle in and work live music magic, it comes at a time in Hampton’s career where constant touring is no longer appealing. After having chalked up more than 300 days on the road annually during the Aquarium Rescue Unit’s heyday, Hampton prefers staying close to his Stone Mountain home. These days, he typically reserves road dates for weekends.
It's his local audience who really reaps the rewards. With special guests, including Kinney and former Zappa and Captain Beefheart guitarist Denny Walley, having already appeared with Hampton at the Vista, more notable visitors are on deck. Hampton says to expect Leo Nocentelli of the Meters and Jerry Garcia Band alum Melvin Seals to stop in soon. Thirteen-year-old guitar prodigy Brandon "Taz" Niederauer, known for his role in the Broadway musical "School of Rock," will join Hampton July 6-8 at the Vista. Other potential guests, Rizzi said, "are so big, we can't even advertise them."
“A lot of people who have known Bruce for a long time have been saying they haven’t seen him happier (onstage),” Rizzi said. “And that just excites me. It warms the heart.”
Col. Bruce Hampton
8:30 p.m. Thursdays. $10. The Vista Room, 2836 LaVista Road, Decatur. 404-321-5000, thevistaroom.com.