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Aquarium Rescue Unit
by Chris Flisher © 1995 /
(first published May 1995 Worcester Phoenix)

Aquarium Rescue Unit
Funk, that heady rhythm concoction that brings bass and drums to a bubbling hard boil, was once the smoldering soulful stew of a generation of musicians in the 1970s. Bootsy Collins, Parliament, Funkadelic, even Tower of Power and War were all purveyors of the pulsing sound, conveniently defined under that heading—funk, funky, funkify, funked up. The term that, when repeated, became a kind of musical onomatopoeia, if you will. It’s a sound that ran its course within a decade and eventually found its way into jazz fusion, rap, and, as of late, some interesting forms of alternative rock.

Enter the Aquarium Rescue Unit, a diversely improvisational band of musical gypsies who are blazing new trails, combining the bass and drums of funk with the stinging blues-based sound of Southern rock.

“No one else is doing that,” says AQR bass-player and spokesman, Oteil Burbridge. “We want to purposefully get the sound that combines Southern rock over a funk bottom. It’s a sound that hasn’t been tapped into yet and I think we can make a whole new sound out of it. Basically,” he pauses, laughing, “We want to do a Bootsy Collins meets Duane Allman thing, you know, a harder funk groove and serious guitar, something that takes you places and makes you want to dance.”

The Aquarium Rescue Unit are the latest incarnation of a band that evolved under the guidance of the legendary Colonel Bruce Hampton. Dating back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Hampton was a regular on the Southern rock scene, jamming with musicians as diverse as the Allman Brothers, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and jazz legend, Sun Ra. A true enigmatic and musical visionary, the Colonel joined forces roughly six years ago with Oteil (bass) and other members of the Southern rock scene, including reknowed keyboardist, Chuck Leavell. Using a phrase from one of the Colonel’s rambling poetic songs as their name, the Aquarium Rescue Unit was born, forming one of the most innovative groups of the South.

Attracting national critical attention, Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, went on to record three albums and achieved cult status within the neo-hippie movement, joining the ranks of groups like Phish, Blues Traveler, and most notably the Grateful Dead. Drawing on wildly diverse genres of music, the Colonel and the AQR defined themselves by blending rock, jazz, funk, blues, bluegrass, and Latin into an amalgamation of improvisational rhythmic sounds and textures that was unusual, if not visionary.

“The Colonel taught us a lot,” offers Burbridge. “He has this way of getting musicians to wipe away their preconceived notions about music. It took me a while to do that, but Bruce was the one who taught me to leave behind whatever I knew and wipe my musical slate clean. I heard the old Delta blues in a whole new way and the improvisational music of people like Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman finally made sense to me,” he laughs, continuing, “Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker were outside harmonically to, but they didn’t even know it. It was just natural for them. None of it was that far out to me anymore and I knew what they were trying to say and Bruce helped me to think that way.”

Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit parted ways about a year ago, says Burbridge, “Because, Bruce wanted to try something different and I don’t blame him. Being in a band is like being in a marriage and you know how hard that can be. Well, imagine being married to five people. The most exciting part of any relationship is the honeymoon,” he continues, “That’s when there’s that tension that really gets the creative stuff going.”

Taking their charter from the same improvisational ground swell they began with the Colonel, AQR are forging forward with their own funky musical vision. “We did a lot with the Colonel, but we never really did that much of the funk stuff. That’s what we really want to do now,” offers Oteil.

True to their vision the band’s latest release, In A Perfect World finds much of the heady funk and jazz-flavored musical directions hinted at in their earlier work. Whether its the flat-out stinging leads of guitarist Jimmy Herring on the opening cut, “Search Yourself” or the slap-down funk of “Stand Up People,” the AQR combine rhythm-charged hooks with off-beat lyrics in a mix that usually either confuses or engages their listeners. Remaining band members include lead vocalist Paul Henson, whose scorching delivery adeptly fuses soul with rock, drummer Apt. Q258 (his legal name!), and Oteil’s brother, Kofi on flute and keyboards.

“All black music is connected to dance, no matter how far back you go, no matter what type,” suggests Oteil, continuing, “My favorite jazz is the old jazz like Charlie Christian, Duke Ellington and big band music from back when jazz was the Top 40 music of the times. It was still music you could dance to. Even when I was younger I played with this African drum group from Ghana. There were ten drummers and ten dancers. The drummers had to learn the dance parts and the dancers had to learn the drum parts. It was great because it really showed the connection between the two and how really inseparable they are. Funk is no different. You can put anything over it, like rock, acid rock, jazz, whatever and I want to put Southern rock over it. In the end,” he concludes, chuckling, “It’s just about moving your ass.”

Chris Flisher

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