Hampton Grease Band Reunion Show 2006
by Parke Puterbaugh

I'm still pinching myself. Did I really see what I saw last night? The Hampton Grease Band reunion was even better than I'd hoped it might be. It was tremendous, redemptive, set spirits soaring, laid ghosts to rest, and made me like Atlanta again.

During the break between opening act Thermos Greenwood and the Grease Band, I surveyed the crowd: middle-aged survivors like you and me, graying, good-natured and tuned in to the right cosmic wavelength. Our kinda people. I think I saw Jeff Calder breeze by, but he passed too quickly to shout him over. I got the impression that most of the crowd were old guard Atlantans who knew the Grease Band back in the day while the rest were latter-day jam-band aficionados who'd come to check out Col. Hampton's first band.

The lights went down and, without fanfare or introduction, Glenn began playing the introduction to 'Halifax.' It was the original band, with Bob Elsey (of the Swimming Pool Q's) subbing for the late Harold Kelling. Elsey was a student of Glenn's and can play the parts remarkably well, so it was as seamless as one could hope for. Hampton seemed bemused and diffident throughout the night, and I mean that in the best possible way. He sang his parts and stood off to the side when the guitarists went on their slalom runs. He looked better than I'd seem him look in years - good color, maybe a few pounds lighter, neatly combed silver hair, white button-down shirt tucked into brown trousers. He couldn't hit the screeching high parts like he did on Music to Eat, and his vocal demeanor was less manic than on record, but still no one can shout 'Grammitch!' and 'Look at Jim Evans! Look at his head!' quite so convincingly.
'Halifax' was an epic guitar journey. Dare I say it equaled and maybe surpassed the recorded version? I will state without reservation that Glenn's second extended solo may have been the greatest, most kinetic high-energy guitar solo I've ever heard. I mean, he was on fire. I don't know how the group negotiated all the stops and starts and odd time signatures without mistakes, but 'Halifax' was perfect. At the end, Hampton stood there chuckling and muttering, 'Not badnot bad,' with colossal understatement. Just for that one performance it was worth the drive to and from Greensboro. And they were just getting started!

A note about the Variety Playhouse. It's a funky old theater. The prototypical band for this venue - they're actually playing there next week - is Hot Tuna. They did one especially brilliant thing at the Variety: they took out the first ten rows, making it a standing-room area for those who are inclined to get their groove on. I'd been sitting about halfway back but raced down front at the first few notes of 'Halifax' and remained there for the entirety of the Grease Band's 90-minute show. I was probably ten feet from the musicians, on Glenn's side of the stage.

After 'Halifax,' Hampton drolly said, 'We're going to play another one of our hits from 1968.' They did the whole 'Spray Paint'/'Major Bones'/'Sewell Park'/'Improvisation' suite. Again, Glenn and Elsey dialed into those difficult, interlocking parts, traded solos and built the energy to an ungodly level by the finale twenty minutes later. Next, Jerry Fields - and, by the way, what a masterful percussionist he is, such Zen-like flow, and it's like he and Glenn were reading each other's minds - came out from behind the drums to sing 'Maria.' He carefully articulated every politically incorrect word, stepped and clapped like a flamenco dancer during the guitar solos, and concluded with a hearty 'Ole!'

Then it was time for another mind-melting epic: 'Six.' Every hairpin twist and turn expertly negotiated. Hair-raising guitar work, almost two simultaneous solos with Glenn and Elsey echoing notes and phrases and creating stabbing harmonics that sounded like stars being born out in deep space. It was nuance-perfect, right down to Fields shouting, 'Ready, go!' Bruce seemed to be enjoying singing about 'performing a key nutritional experiment' and doing 'Voldag's will.' Again, at the end, jaws throughout the theater were dropped and mouths agape and how could you even applaud something like that loud enough? Glenn dedicated it to Kelling and noted that Bruce and Kelling had written it together many moons ago.

They finished the show by performing the third side of the album, again hammering this impossible and wonderfully illogical music back to life. Glenn, I can't emphasize this enough, was like a man afire. Such amazing sounds he got, such great control over his instrument - some kind of Gibson, though it didn't look quite like either a Les Paul or a Standard - and he made it look all look effortless. I was knocked out by the way he and Elsey locked in with the rhythm section, with Fields dealing polyrhythms like he was shuffling a deck of cards and Mike Holbrook laying that bopping bedrock bottom.pure musical bliss.
Overall, it was the most energizing and uplifting musical experience I've had since, well, that time you and I went to Glenn's amazing 50th birthday show in Atlanta.

For an encore they did 'Hey Old Lady and Bert's Song' and then segued into a bluesy uptempo number - a cover, I'm guessing, with a title like 'Can't Please You' - that Hampton sang with gusto. He is still an excellent singer and could've had a career fronting a band like Roomful of Blues if he hadn't been drawn to the surrealist margins (which is fortunate for all of us).

They came back for a second encore, which was a totally unexpected medley of old soul and rock 'n' roll tunes. Before they began Glenn seized the mike and screamed,

"WELL, THEY SAID IT COULDN'T BE DONE. THEY SAID WE WERE TOO OLD, TOO WEAK AND TOO FRAIL. AND THEY WERE RIGHT ABOUT THAT. BUT HERE'S WHAT THEY DIDN'T CONSIDER -- THE POWER OF THE CITY OF ATLANTA TO RISE THE PHOENIX FROM THE ASHES. MIRACLE OF MIRACLES, LIFE HAS BEEN BROUGHT BACK FROM THE DEAD, AND THE FIRST THING I'M DOING WHEN I GET UP TOMORROW IS CALL THE POPE AND DEMAND THAT HE PUT THIS CITY ON THE FAST TRACK TO SAINTHOOD."

They proceeded to play a James Brown song ('I'll Go Crazy' - the one with the refrain 'You've got to live/For yourself/For yourself and nobody else'), and then a rollicking 'Shake Your Moneymaker' and finally Bill Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock.' Hampton was out of his mind, dropping the mike to the stage and then whipping it back up with his foot. He began screaming, 'Give it up for the bass man!,' snuck behind Holbrook and began fingering bad notes. It was hilariously funny. And they rocked the house like the world's hottest rock 'n' soul band on that closing triptych.

What an evening. I was still so buzzed that even with the long drive and long show I just walked around Little Five Points for awhile and got calzone at a pizza joint at one a.m.

God, I wish you'd been there, but judging from the fun they seemed to be having onstage I'll bet there will be a next time sooner rather than later.

Parke Puterbaugh

                        
















































































































































































L to R: Jerry Fields, Glenn Phillips
Glenn Phillips, Bruce Hampton,
Mike Holbrook, Bob Elsey
Glenn Phillips, Jerry Fields,
Mike Holbrook, Bob Elsey,
Bruce Hampton
Glenn Phillips, Jerry Fields
Mike Holbrook, Bruce Hampton