Zambiland Orchestra, Variety Playhouse, Atlanta 12/22
STIMULUS AND RESPONSE: THE SIXTH ANNUAL ZAMBILAND ORCHESTRA SHOW
The annual Zambiland Orchestra show is a hard thing to describe, to put it mildly. Once a year the acolytes of Col. Bruce Hampton and his Zambi mythos congregate at the legendary Variety Playhouse in Atlanta for a musical excursion that follows no road map. The standard rules and conventions of music are at best speed bumps to this crew of sonic adventurers, who come in droves ever year to pay tribute to the Colonel and the spirit of musical freedom that he embodies.
Ricky Keller of Project Z, in his Zambi role as “conductor” Lincoln Metcalfe, addressed the crowd at the beginning of this year’s show. After asking if anybody had been to Zambiland shows before and receiving a hearty ovation from the veterans in the audience, he seemed to direct his remarks to the newbies. “Every year we have lots of great musicians, some of whom have never played with each other, so it’s hard to know what to expect,” Keller explained to the crowd. “All we know for sure is this: There’s going to be stimulus, and there’s going to be response.”
Which may be the best explanation of Zambiland that I have heard yet. Usually, even the loosest jam sessions have unspoken rules of musical behavior. You are free to jam, but within certain limits. You are expected to stay in tune and in time with the rest of the musicians. At Zambiland, it’s not only okay to play something that has no obvious connection to the rest of what’s happening, it is atually encouraged. You don’t have to stay in key: you don’t even have to stay on this planet. Just play, in the best childlike sense of the word, and if that includes random screaming or running around the stage like a madman, go for it.
This year’s version featured a mind-boggling 62 musicians, in a configuration that sounds like a warped Christmas carol of some kind: 12 bass players, 9 drummers, 8 horn players, 5 guitarists, 5 keyboardists, 4 banjo players, etc. From what I remember, there wasn’t a partridge in a pear tree, but that could have been when I was in the bathroom. One of the many joys of Zambiland lies in the sheer abundance of musical talent in the building. It seems that the musicans get off on it as well, and it drives them all to great heights in the name of Zambi. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is a benefit for the Atlanta Food Bank. This year’s show was also a benefit for Mark Vann of Leftover Salmon, who is ailing with cancer, so there was that much more positive energy in the air.
ON TO THE SHOW
This year’s version began with a gentleman named Jim Hadley, who is listed in the program as a One Man Band. He certainly lived up to that name, playing everything from harmonica to washboard to fiddle, all while tap dancing up a storm. He is apparently a street performer, and had met Zambiland founder (and ARU drummer) Jeff Sipe on a previous swing through Atlanta. I thought it was cool of Sipe to remember such an unorthodox entertainer, and Hadley played up a storm all night long. Throughout the show, you could frequently see him tap dancing away as the band jammed furiously.
Following Hadley’s “set, which was received enthusiastically by the Variety Playhouse crowd, it was time for “the Zambi banjos.” Part of the greatness of Zambiland is that it includes so many different styles of music, and this segment was fairly straight-up bluegrass jamming. Jeff Mosier of Blueground Undergrass, Bobby Lee Rogers of the Code Talkers, Danny Barnes of Leftover Salmon, and a great player named Billy Constable blew the crowd away with their display of synchronized picking.
The next act was one that I was delighted to see back in action. Yonrico Scott, the drummer for the Derek Trucks Band, had a massive heart attack recently, so it was pure joy to see him looking healthy and happy and playing his heart out. His band played some relatively straightforward jazz jams for a while, highlighting Yonrico’s excellent sax player, Bryan Lopes. The whole band was occasionally improvising “lyrics” along the lines of “Something crazy, something a little silly, something OUT!”
After a while, people starting jamming with Yonrico’s band. Then more, and more, until the stage was practically full. Soon, we were immersed in the first real appearance of the Zambiland Orchestra, as the massive ensemble veered through a variety of unusual musical textures. The energy in the room built to insane levels as dozens of the greatest musicians on Earth gave it their all, pushing the jam to the very extremes of musical possibility. By the time it came crashing to a conclusion, I felt like a cigarette and a shower, and the show was officially underway.
After a short set break, bluegrass legend John Cowan took the stage and led an all-star band through some old favorites. Once the band was good and warmed up, a special guest approached from backstage. It was Mike Gordon, bass player for Phish! A longtime associate of Bruce Hampton, Mike directed the Colonel in the legendary cinematic masterpiece Outside Out, so it was no surprise to see him join the fray. He picked up Jeff Mosier’s banjo, sat down in a chair, and began picking to the delight of the crowd. Mike seemed to enjoy the enthusiastic welcome he received from the crowd, and his bluegrass chops stood up well to the masters around him.
The set took a turn when Mike exchanged the banjo for a bass, and a multitude of musicians gradually filled the stage for another full-on dose of Zambiland. This was more comfortable territory for Mike Gordon, as he ripped off strange but powerful bass riffs that were thoroughly Zambified. I was also very impressed with John Cowan’s enthusiasm and big, fat bass sound throughout this portion of the show, which he more or less directed.. At one point, the horns took center stage again for a while, with the infamous El Buho and Jeff Coffin of the Flecktones putting together some nice off-the-cuff unison lines.
When Ricky Keller announced that the much-anticipated reunion of the Aquarium Rescue Unit would be next, the room exploded with noise and continued buzzing throughout the set break.
The ARU had caused a stir with a brief reunion at Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam last year, but this was the first Atlanta show they had played in seven years, and hardcore fans like myself were tingling with anticipation, especially since the show was at Variety. ARU playing at Variety Playhouse is like the Dead playing the Fillmore or the Meters playing Tipitina’s. A considerable home field advantage comes into play, as this building was the launching pad from which the Unit spread their gospel of weirdness across the land. Among other things, the Zambiland Orchestra itself would not be possible without the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and I have often felt that one of the reasons for its inception was to recapture some of the glory days of ARU, even if it was only for one day a year.
Any concerns about rustiness were put to rest quickly and decisively with a torrid version of Davy Crockett. Rather than start with a more familiar tune like Fixin’ To Die, the band jumped right into Bizarro World with this more obscure cut off their classic first record. The result was a mind-melting display of raw energy. Oteil Burbridge’s bass lines cascaded across the stage while Jeff Sipe and Count Mbutu kept manic time, as the greatest rhythm section ever was reborn. Fiery guitar runs and keyboard riffs filled up the spaces between the frantic beats as ARU wasted no time whatsoever whipping the crowd into a frenzy. I used to think that the Unit was the baddest band in the land, without exception, and I was quickly reminded why.
Fixin’ To Die was next, and the bluegrass vibe that had been present all evening definitely came through. Once again, I was amazed by Jimmy Herring’s technical facility as he picked up a storm on this one. The always-fantastic Chuck Leavell also added a lot on keyboards to this tune, and the crowd sang along lustily. Now that the crowd and band were thoroughly warmed up, a damn near perfect version of Shoeless Joe came next. The mix of styles make it one of the most representative ARU songs, as it goes from blues to lounge jazz to intergalactic weirdness, and the band restlessly explored every possible corner of the tune’s expansive musical geography. By the time it came crashing to a close with more soul-rending, bluesy vocals from Bruce, who sounded great tonight, I felt like somebody had scratched an itch that I couldn’t reach for seven years.
After Shoeless Joe ended, the drummers picked up on some of the residual energy rippling through the atmosphere and started up a churning rhythm. Soon Oteil was playing off the drummers, showing the unflappable sense of time and rhythm that makes him so greatm, and they built up the rhythm jam into something truly ferocious. Then came the moment we were all waiting for: Seemingly out of nowhere, Oteil ripped out the bass riff to Time Is Free, and comparisons and analogies are insufficient to describe what was happening on stage for the next hour or so.
I’m not entirely sure when the Aquarium Rescue Unit stopped playing and the Zambiland Orchestra took over. The Zambiland crew joined ARU in waves until the stage was truly FULL of people, creating one of the biggest sounds I’ve ever heard. At first they stayed within range of the surging, powerful Time Is Free theme, and Col. Bruce took one of the better guitar solos I’ve seen him take. (He may have taken it from Jimmy Herring, but I’m sure he will give it back someday) He was creating noises that have no business coming out of a guitar, and the whole crowd was reminded why all these talented people come every year to bow at the feet of someone who could easily be mistaken for a crazy old redneck. Of course, in one aspect he IS a crazy old redneck, but Bruce Hampton has enviable access to realms of magic and creativity that most of us have never seen. This is why he can, among other things, play really strange guitar solos. This is also why he can travel through time, guess people’s birthdays, create new languages and cultures, and juggle mice.
Eventually they left Time Is Free behind and jumped headfirst into what was probably the most interesting half hour of “music” that I have ever heard. Everything was included in the mix: screaming guitar solos, Jeff Coffin playing the Olympic Theme, a bizarre chanting sequence, and one of the guys from Time Bandits chasing Oteil around the stage like a maniacal elf. It was pure ART at its highest level, a combination of a great jam session and a night at the circus. There were tubas on stage, for crying out loud! It was all so gloriously ALIVE, and by the time Ricky Keller led the Orchestra through a punishing series of crescendos, everybody in the building was wide awake and ready for more.
The following set break was one of those where people are looking for validation of what they had just witnessed. “Can you believe that shit?” is one way I heard this expressed. Out of all the Zambiland shows I have seen, this years ARU segment may be the best I’ve seen, and I felt such gratitude to have been there.
But the night was still young, and Jeff Mosier soon took the stage to lead yet another round of madness. Mosier didn’t play with ARU during their set, but was well represented during the acoustic/bluegrass parts of the show. During this jam he was doing a sort of weird yodeling thing for a while that entailed him slouching over his banjo microphone in a decidedly unusual posture. Combined with the strange vocalizations he was making, it was an unusual image, to say the least, and it puzzled my fianco no end.
“Why is he singing like that?,” she asked with a troubled tone.
Good question, but why stop there? Why would one of the guys from Time Bandits chase people around the stage like a leprechaun on crack? Why do some of the most trained musicians in America come from all around the country once a year to be “conducted” by a seeming lunatic with a plunger? Why is all of this madness so much damn FUN?
There are no whys in Zambiland. You are better off if you just check logic at the door for this experience, it will do you no good here. The upcoming CD from Zambiland Orchestra is apparently going to be called 6 Years of Time Travel, and that is worth meditating on. The whole point of this music is to get OUT. Out of the world of time and logic and order, and into a sort of mythological realm of pure creativity where just about anything is possible and the normal rules do not apply. I enjoy going there myself, and I would advise YOU to take a trip to Zambiland.