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Col. Bruce Hampton and Dennis Palmer: Strange fruit 

Southern avant-gardists turn their past into something new

Like two peas in a very strange pod, Dennis Palmer and Col. Bruce Hampton possess complementary musical minds that are bound by more than their native Southern soil.

Recollections are hazy, but Hampton speculates they've been kicking around the same musical circles, beginning with Howard Finster's Paradise Gardens in Summerville, Ga., since the early 1980s. But Palmer clarifies that they didn't team up to play together until '99.

Like true Southern gentlemen, when one is asked to shed light on the other's character, their replies are nothing short of earnest and sincere flattery. "Dennis is the greatest musician I've ever had the pleasure to know," Hampton offers. Palmer's response is equally appreciative, albeit a bit weird. "It's beyond the normal honor to work with him," Palmer says. "He's a dang Southern avant-garde hero to me. Bruce has been tapped into the mystery of the seven vowels and the cosmic constants before and since he landed on this here planet. You don't bump into someone like Bruce by accident."

The manner in which both men address each other says a lot about their musical dynamic. Hampton's influence as a sometimes improv/avant-garde guitarist stretches back to his days with the Hampton Grease Band in the late 1960s. He is a seminal figure in Atlanta's rock history who often plays a dwarfish guitar called a "chazoid." His approach to rock music has always been quirky, and is a close cousin to Captain Beefheart's outsider-rock lurch.

Hampton's later bands Aquarium Rescue Unit, the Late Bronze Age and his most recent outfit, the Quark Alliance, have wandered through a musical terrain that surfs the edges of earth-toned Grateful Dead-style rock and psychedelic Southern boogie, carrying him dangerously close to the realms of the much reviled jam-band ghetto. But Hampton has always kept his gaze pointed at the cosmos. As a result, his sound has remained planted on the outskirts of traditional Southern rock.

Palmer is an improvisational musician of another color altogether. The Chattanooga, Tenn., resident was once an active character in Atlanta's art-punk/no-wave/experimental-music scene of the late '80s and early '90s. As half of the duo the Shaking Ray Levis, Palmer is a distinctly Southern entity who draws influence from the hissing of summer lawns, the sound of insects and the fervor that drives Southern Baptist zealots to shout fire and brimstone from Chattanooga's street corners. As such, his musical output is bizarre and sometimes discomforting. But there is a twisted sense of humor to it all. His presence during performances is akin to a bug-eyed preacher, speaking in tongues over musical textures that are at turns ominous, silly and spastic.

Though Palmer and Hampton have played together many times over the years, the Feb. 19 show at Eyedrum will be the first time they have paired down as a duo. Such a merger should be a wild card at best, and neither one seems eager to give away too many details. Hampton explains the set will be completely improvised, and that the two share a silent back-and-forth of musical ideas and history that transcends the level of comfort most musicians can extract from one another.

"Dennis plays on my solo album that's coming out soon, and he's the only one besides me who plays on it," Hampton says. Palmer elaborates on their confluence, and says their intense chemical bond is more about placing trust in a set of learned and shared instincts. "It's more about the discipline of years of play," Palmer says. "That kind of discipline frees the spirit, so you can play with what you know today and, Lord willing, tomorrow, too!"

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