Aquarium Rescue Unit blooms

Drummer Jeff Sipe talks about the ‘band that never broke up’

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Andy Tenille

When Trey Anastasio took the stage with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead a few weeks ago, subbing for the 23-year-gone Jerry Garcia, it was a little hard not to regard the gig as a gentle and respectful closing of a generational arc.

The torch-passing symbolism was or wasn’t such a great idea, depending on how you feel about Phish or the Dead. And say what you want about the jam band thing — by rock-trend standards, it’s probably past middle age and wears its trousers a little wrinkled. But it’s worth remembering that as much as the jam band movement owes much of its DNA to Haight-Ashbury and Macon, it was in large part John Popper’s H.O.R.D.E. Festival that helped put Anastasio in the position to play his scariest gig ever.

In its seven years through the Clinton administration, H.O.R.D.E. helped launch or lift the arc of some of the biggest careers of the ’90s and the aughts. Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic, Phish, Gov’t Mule, Wilco, The Black Crowes, Primus, Big Head Todd and the Monsters — all of them appeared at H.O.R.D.E. at one time or another.

One of the foundational bands that Popper included in his earliest shows was Aquarium Rescue Unit, a schizophrenic fusion/surrealist franchise loosely assembled by renowned Atlanta performer Col. Bruce Hampton, who had been forming underground bands and twisting synapses in the Atlanta area for more than 20 years. (It is said his first major release as Hampton Grease Band, a double-album collection called Music to Eat, is the second lowest selling release in Columbia Records history.)

On the occasion of ARU’s short summer reunion tour, drummer Jeff Sipe, known then and still occasionally referred to as Apt. Q-258, admits that unlike many of their fellow marqueemates, ARU wasn’t altogether prepared for the success of H.O.R.D.E. ARU, despite the withering chops of Oteil Burbridge, Sipe and then little-known Wednesday, July 29 and Thursday, July 30, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-447-0095. Jimmy Herring, was just not tooled for duration running.

“Absolutely not,” Sipe says. “It was a creative outlet, really more of a performance art group that incorporated skits in the music, or incorporated music in the skits. It was 50-50 in the beginning; we just did crazy, theatrical improv. Then over the years, as the group developed its players and into that songbook, the music got just more and more elevated. But the antics didn’t stop and the performance art aspect and visuals didn’t stop.

“I remember a couple times onstage, we’d be jamming, and we’d get a little too jazzy, and Bruce would turn around and stop us and say, ‘What is this? Berklee?’ Then he’d take his guitar, turn it up full blast and just play the most horrible shit you ever heard, and we’d all de-tune, join in and have fun.”

Sipe says that while H.O.R.D.E. vastly raised the profile of what might have otherwise been an obscure regional group, the group’s primary mission — musical hooky from their day jobs playing covers — wasn’t a sound foundation for long term success.

“We also had a string of bad luck with management,” Sipe says, “and that didn’t help at all. … If you look to successful bands — Widespread, Phish, Dave Matthews and such — they had brilliant management who were just ruthless. If they hadn’t had that help, for many of them it could have been the same story.”

As for his quirky moniker “Apt. Q-258,” Sipe thanks the Colonel for it.

“Everybody in Bruce’s band had a nickname. I was ‘Apt. Q-258,’ Oteil was ‘Oteil from Egypt.’ (Jimmy was always just Jimmy.) Bruce never believes you are who you say you are. This may not make a lot of sense, but here goes…

“Prophet Omega was a radio evangelist who broadcast his Sunday sermons from his apartment, apartment Q-258, in a complex in Nashville. He was not an educated man, and he had a group of followers who listened to him every Sunday. Sam Bush and some of the Nashville bluegrass cats would record these sermons and distribute them (and they were really out there), so this underground cult following grew up around Prophet Omega.

“One day, we were in the car on the way to a gig, Bruce and I, and he turned to me and said, ‘That’s it, I know who you are — you’re the apartment. Apartment Q-258.’ And I looked at him sideways, and I still don’t really know what he meant by it.”

Players come and go, Sipe observes, but if the musical and personal cohesion is there, finding their way back is a natural turn. For Sipe, ARU is the band that never really broke up.

“We’re all friends after all these years, we all still love each other. … Playing with these guys is one of the greatest musical joys of my life.

“All flowers bloom and decay,” he says. “Some have a long life, some have a double life. But they all bloom and decay; it’s the natural course of events. You learn, you grow into your higher self, you move on. And if you come back together on that higher level, that’s it. That’s what life’s all about.”

ON THE BILL: Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Featuring Jimmy Herring, Oteil Burbridge, Jeff Sipe and Matt Slocum. 9 p.m. Wednesday, July 29 and Thursday, July 30, Fox theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-447-0095.