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Published: 2001/09/19
by Jesse Jarnow

Bootleg Live – The Code Talkers featuring Col. Bruce Hampton

Seeing Col. Bruce Hampton perform is important for those who have never seen
him before. Hearing him, on this disc, with the Code Talkers is not. On "Bootleg
Live," a free self-released disc, Hampton runs the Code Talkers through his
usual repertoire of funked-up gospel and Zambi oration (there is also a trio
of songs by electric banjoist Bobby Lee Rodgers). Generally, the band plays
the Aquarium Rescue Unit standards in a fine manner, but there is no way their
arrangements will ever be able to match the precision of the ARU. The songs will
never receive tighter readings than those provided by the core power trio of
Jimmy Herring, Jeff Sipe, and Oteil Burbridge.
So, why bother? It is not a tight band that the Colonel needs so much
as a sympathetic one. The best analogue for what Hampton does vocally and
musically might well be The Shaggs, a trio of sisters from the New Hampshire
backwoods who released an album in the late 1960s. They were untrained – completely untrained – and their music reflects it. No less a mucky
muck than Frank Zappa purportedly once said that listening to it put him
into something approximating a Zen state simply because it followed no
perceivable rules. The Shaggs did not make free music because it
tried to be real music, just as Col. Bruce Hampton assumes the role
of a rock musician.
People misinterpret the Aquarium Rescue Unit as a proto-jamband. They were
not. They – in the form of ultra-schooled Atlanta-based musicians – were a
reaction to the refined wank-rock of the late 1980s and early 1990s, an
improbable outgrowth of heavy metal music and Yngwie Malmsteen (though the
musicians themselves might deny this). While Bruce may have "saved" the
musicians souls on some levels (as they would likely claim in interviews),
he also wielded them like an axe – as he uses all his bands – to prove a
The reason, then, why the Code Talkers are irrelevant, at least in terms of
a live recording, is because they are a jamband; the first of Bruce’s bands
to really embrace that aesthetic. I would contend that the genre of jamband music, in certain contexts, has become a parody of itself. Nothing can be revealed through
recordings, at least nothing along the lines of what Hampton is trying to
get across.
When Bobby Lee Rodgers leads the band, as he does on Ferry Boat,
Diggin’ Up Bones, and Niagara Falls, the music becomes less
compelling. He is a fine songwriter, but his style pales in light
of the musical deconstructions Hampton is trying out. In the grand scheme of things,
Rodgers seems like the straight man.
None of this is to say that the Code Talkers are an unworthy group. If
anything, this recording should make folks want to see them live. Hampton
provides complete performances, precious little of which are captured here.

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