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Published: 2003/09/28
by Jesse Jarnow

The Calling – The Aquarium Rescue Unit

self-released

In September 1991, six musicians improvised a six-minute piece of music,
which was later dubbed "Quinius Thoth." It was incredible — time signatures
and melodies crashing together with an unprecedented playfulness in a
hideously right collision of fusion and bluegrass, obscurities laid bare,
opened up and made understandable. In a way, the original lineup of the
Aquarium Rescue Unit laid plans for the jamband scene that could never be
(or just haven't been) topped or necessarily fulfilled. Several of the six
musicians onstage (seven if you count their bandleader) have gone on to
other, far more visible, acts. Bassist Oteil Burbridge is a member of the
Allman Brothers Band. Guitarist Jimmy Herring is a member of the Dead.
Drummer Apartment Q-258, Jeff Sipe, would join (and leave) Leftover Salmon.
Col. Bruce Hampton, the bandleader (then, and now, "retired"), would
continue his musical travels, turning his carney-mystic attentions to bands
like Phish and Medeski, Martin, and Wood.

In the years after the band's self-titled live debut was recorded, band
members began to trickle out. Mandolinist Matt Mundy was the first to go,
retiring from music to paint houses. Then Hampton, citing health reasons.
Then Sipe. New members came. ARU tours became less frequent and, then,
stopped. There were occasional reunion gigs (mostly without Mundy). But the
musicians never went away. They were always there, out on the touring
circuit, crossing paths occasionally, and earning new accolades to go into
parentheses after their names. The Calling, then, is a reunion CD.
Though maybe it was recorded when they were still sorta together as the ARU
(it features the latter-day lineup), the liner notes aren't exactly clear on
that. Though the CD features the ARU name, and a handful of virtuoso
performances, the music is a pale, pale shadow of what the band once
represented.

Instead of reveling in it, the music now only borders on the abstract,
instead favoring an adult contemporary liteness that is so far in
that I'm almost willing to accept it as a big joke. But I don't think it is.
Paul Henson's lyrics are too earnest, with song titles like "Precious
Child," "Page In Time," and "Reflections." The band still twists angularly
behind the vocals (check out the cool fusion dropdown behind the chorus of
"Nice"), but their virtuosity is in service of something entirely different.
As always, Jimmy Herring's solos are completely ridiculous, deftly unpacking melodies in
precisely bent flurries. But, they no longer seem consequential. Oddly, the
reason for this, is because the frame tries all too hard to be meaningful.

In the years since the Aquarium Rescue Unit helped establish some of the
primary aspects of the jamband sound, there have been several arcs and
subsequent backlashes. One of them has to do with humor in music. Hampton, a
Zen absurdist, is at least partially responsible. Where they were once
flippant by default, many bands now try to mask their humor with deadly
seriousness, trying to overshadow their younger, more instinctual selves.
The ARU fall prey to this on The Calling (perhaps depicted by the
school of hungry looking sharks on the cover?). What's missing,
conceptually, is the band's triumphant sense of playfulness. What's missing,
literally, is bluegrass. The ARU were perhaps the first jamband to seriously
attempt bluegrass. Since then, the inclusion of a bluegrass influence has
become a barely veiled code for "fun," but – in the ARU – it was a very real
musical effect, adding one more rhythmic approach to a tension-filled gear
system.

It's always a joy to hear Jimmy Herring and Oteil Burbridge play music
together (the only remaining members of the original lineup, save for an
appearance by percussionist Count M'butu). The disc's opening track, "Hurt
No More," even hints at an ARU that might be. Just as Derek Trucks was an
Allman Brother long before he was ever in the band, he is also a member of
the Aquarium Rescue Unit, even if he's not in the band yet. Even without
Hampton or most of the original members, it might be possible to one day
construct a version of the ARU that can create some of the musical impact of
the classic lineup. And that's a project worth looking into. Given the
members' predilection for collaboration, one can only wait, watch, and hope.

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