The stage was set for quite a celebration at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on May 1, 2017. A cast of musical all-stars came together to honor and celebrate the 70th birthday of Col. Bruce Hampton, an underground icon in the Southern rock world. Throughout his five-decade career, Hampton flirted with broad success, releasing a record on Columbia with his Hampton Grease Band and gaining his greatest attention fronting the Aquarium Rescue Unit, an early 1990s contemporary of Phish and Blues Traveler.
His reach was far deeper, however. The quirky, thought-provoking bluesman was the musical equivalent of a minor-league baseball coach, mentoring countless musicians who went on to bigger things. Many of them showed up to pay tribute in front of a capacity crowd at the ornate Georgia theater. The four-plus-hour show, billed as “Hampton 70,” featured Warren Haynes, John Popper, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Peter Buck of R.E.M., Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell and Phish drummer Jon Fishman, as well as members of Widespread Panic and Leftover Salmon.
Guitarist Jimmy Herring, who first surfaced playing for Hampton in the Aquarium Rescue Unit, could tell his former bandleader was enjoying the evening. But during the encore, while a packed cluster of players ran through a version of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn on Your Lovelight,” Hampton suddenly fell to the ground. At first, many on stage thought the guy well known for zany stage antics was playing a joke, but it soon became clear the situation was serious. The curtain closed. Hampton died after rescuers took him to a local hospital.
“It was surreal,” Herring said, five weeks after the show. “I’m still torn up. It’s hard to stomach, but I’ve heard him say that’s the way he wanted to go. He was surrounded by so many people that hold him in high regard.”
Calling Hampton his “muse, musical father figure and mentor,” Herring credits his late friend with instilling in him a musical enlightenment that influenced his work in subsequent high-profile roles. Since his time in ARU, Herring has gone on to develop one of the most enviable resumes in rock. He was a member of the Allman Brothers Band following the departure of Dickey Betts, and he’s played lead guitar for some notable Grateful Dead spinoffs, including The Dead and Phil Lesh and Friends. He’s currently a full-time member of Widespread Panic, but with that band scaling back its road time, Herring is using the summer to unveil a new group, the Invisible Whip.
On his upcoming tour, which swings through the Front Range for four shows in early September, Herring will front his own band for the first time in five years. He assembled the new outfit as a direct nod to his time playing with Hampton. All members of the Invisible Whip—drummer and fellow former ARU member Jeff Sipe, organ player Matt Slocum, bassist Kevin Scott and multi-instrumentalist Jason Crosby—spent time playing with Hampton. For Herring, common thread is essential.
“I want to be surrounded by people who have worked with him, because we all speak the same language,” Herring says.“The music was so simple when we played with Bruce, and it was easy to inject your musical self when you were on stage with him. I want that to be an element of what we’ll be doing with this group.”
Herring says the new band will incorporate roots-based music with room for improvisational tangents, much like they did during their time playing with Hampton. Set lists will include some of the instrumental compositions from Herring’s two most-recent studio albums, 2008’s “Lifeboat” and 2012’s “Subject to Change Without Notice,” as well as new material and select covers. With Herring’s virtuosic guitar work leading the charge, the sound will shift between wide-open blues jams, melodic rock journeys and spacey free-jazz jaunts, but Herring isn’t fond of sonic labels.
“It’s instrumental music, so some people will hear it and immediately call it jazz,” he says. “But I don’t like to draw distinctions between genres. To me, in a perfect world, there’s no line between jazz and funk and blues and rock. That’s what Bruce taught me. Music can be oriented in certain ways and injected with personality, but it’s just music.”
Jimmy Herring and the Invisible Whip play the Gothic Theatre in Englewood on September 7, the Fox Theatre in Boulder on September 8 and 9, and the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins on September 10.