There isn't nearly enough space here to recap the extensive, colorful, and confusing history of Atlanta's granddaddy of all things jam, Col. Bruce Hampton, who now adds "Ret." to his moniker. But from his 1969 emergence as the leader of the ahead-of-its-time Hampton Grease Band through stints with a wildly diverse set of curiously named outfits, including the Late Bronze Age, the Codetalkers, the Fiji Mariners, the Quark Alliance, and, most notoriously, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, his idiosyncratic influence has been felt by every major roots/jam musician who has emerged from the Peach State.
Hampton's ties to headliners such as Widespread Panic and Derek Trucks are well documented, but names such as Warren Haynes, Billy Bob Thornton, Chuck Leavell, Jimmy Herring, Phish's Mike Gordon, and Frank Zappa also play key roles in Hampton's more than 40-year professional career. Last year's documentary Basically Frightened details the story for those who want to dig deeper.
On Pharoah's Kitchen [sic], Hampton's first solo effort since 2008's Songs of the Solar Ping, the singer, songwriter, guitarist, and auteur coalesces many of his past musical strains successfully into a nine-track, 36-minute album that flows with surprising ease, channeled through his charmingly offbeat and eclectic mindset.
While most of the song titles here don't display the warped sensibilities of previous selections such as "Fat Brooms Brush the Number Bush," "Frolic with the Closet Lizards," or "Ghost Alcohol Sandwich," there's still plenty of mental madness to chew on with "The Dots Go Where I Say They Go" and "The Grogans Have Arrived."
Hampton's talk/shout singing is akin to stream of consciousness speaking with verbal acrobatics that make his oddball concepts seem poetic and nearly normal. The jazz piano lines that open the ominous "Don't Go in that Room" keep the vibe lively and push the spirited closer "Money Man" from the church to the sanitarium. As such, there's plenty of Captain Beefheart-style vocal weirdness to go around, but his jazz/blues sensibilities keep a firm grasp on reality showing there's abundant twisted inspiration left in his nearly 70-year-old brain.
As is usually the case with Hampton's songwriting, the music bends in a variety of directions which, thanks to sacred steel player AJ Ghent's stellar contributions, add a slinky sense of swampy blues to tunes such as "Black Cat on My Shoulder," where the vocalist's sly sense of humor ("she was my future ex-wife, she didn't know it") plays hopscotch with the song's bass-heavy and lowdown blues groove.
The album's title cut kicks off with a greasy guitar riff that rides over Hampton's gruff, grandfatherly vocals and nearly steals the show from the star. Hometown fans will recognize the reference to Luckie Street that appears among typically obtuse, head-scratching, and wildly avant-garde lyrics. The slow, smooth jazz/rock creep of "The Grogans Have Arrived" recalls some of Zappa's similarly less hyperactive work while allowing Hampton to vamp over the cool feline vibe as Ghent's pedal steel solo adds mystery.
Hampton's influence on the scene is incalculable yet his erratic recording schedule and diverse genre hopping hasn't helped his regional notoriety spread as widely as his mentor and godfather role would indicate. Perhaps that's to be expected of someone who knows few boundaries, and the ones that he does recognize, such as jazz, blues, gospel, country, and rock 'n' roll, are mutated — often beyond recognition — once they're sifted through his quirky and impenetrable imagination. Now if he could release more gems like this on a reasonable schedule, perhaps his local cult status could become more widely contagious.
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