Give Thanks to Chank – Col. Bruce Hampton and the Quark Alliance
Let us give thanks to Col. Bruce Hampton, apparently still unretired. He has never been particularly popular — or good, for that matter — but that has never stopped him from being himself. Or even great. But mostly totally fucking bonkers, on albums stretching from the Hampton Grease Band's absurdist 1971 psych masterpiece Music To Eat to gloriously incomprehensible dada like 1982’s Isles of Langerhan. In the late 1980s, however, he somehow collided with the nascent southern jamband scene, becoming mentor to Widespread Panic and a clique of impeccable musicians known as the Aquarium Rescue Unit, which has yielded latter-day members of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, among many others. Since that time, Hampton has gone from the far out to the far in, favoring bands that tighten the rhythms around his ranting to a nuts-and-bolts hippie unfunk.
Like his last project, the Code Talkers, Hampton's pairing with the Quark Alliance finds the 60-year old singer operating at less than full steam, surrendering a good deal of track time to Alliance songwriter Jeff Caldwell. And while that may make sense from a functional standpoint, it's not that fun to listen to. When Hampton is on (or off, depending on your perspective), though, his music is still as compelling as ever. In fact, his impulse towards the surreal even sounds somewhat refreshed. On the disc's title track opener, he sings in tongues that seem separated from the post-Sun Ra vocabulary of Zambi that his dominated his lyrics during the recent past. Elsewhere, on "Them Dickinson Boys," he offers some uniquely blasted guitar soloing. "Susan T," meanwhile, is an apparent mash note to Susan Tedeschi. "She's the queen of—" Hampton sings, and clears his throat.
But that's pretty much it for Bruce, songwise. And this is not to raise any major criticism of the Caldwell and the Quark Alliance. Caldwell's songs are crisp, bordering on post-Sublime funk-pop and balladry at times ("All Simplicity") and working with an endearing sweetness at others ("It's Not Over"). But they're not Bruce Hampton. On one hand, it's good that they don't try to match him for weirdness, because that would be an invitation to caricature. On the other, it's music that appeals for very different reasons than Hampton's, and — most importantly — isn't as nearly as interesting.
The idea of bad taste has long been an artistic concern of Hampton's, often manifesting itself in belches and gurgles (heard on "Susan T") or detuned guitars (like the masterfully Hamptonized noise freak-out closer, "Threnody to the Victims of Louisiana"). At the same time, it has been hard to know whether Hampton's taste aesthetics are the cause of the faceless bands he often plays with, or if that's just a product of the fact that he's a true outsider artist/carny act, working with what he's got.
Where does that leave Hampton at this stage of his career? It is hard to say, but the time certainly seems ripe for mass rediscovery in a way it rarely has before. For starters, the jamband scene he helped spawn is rapidly reaching its narrative conclusion. It would be mighty useful for somebody like Bruce to come along and make a big statement, even if it's totally oblique and has nothing to do with anything anybody was thinking about previously. On a more practical level, it means maybe it wouldn't be so hard for him to pull in some of those big name free agents that've been floating around. At the age of 60, Hampton is a journeyman blues singer, tried and true, exactly the type who might necessitate an all-star album of old friends laying down a sympathetic bed for his raps. Or maybe we just need to wait patiently for the solo album promised next year.