Colonel Bruce Hampton Takes Flight at the Fox

by Mike Wharton
in Event Lighting
The Fox Theatre in Atlanta was packed for the party. Photo by Dave Vann
The Fox Theatre in Atlanta was packed for the party. Photo by Dave Vann

Music Matters Shines a Light on 70th Birthday Jam

The event, “Hampton 70 — A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton” at the Fox Theater in Atlanta GA all started with a short conversation between Duane Trucks, drummer for Widespread Panic, and music entertainment lawyer, Matt Wilson, at the Candler Park Music Festival in 2016.

Hampton, better known as “The Colonel,” has been an institution in Atlanta since the 1970s, and for the past 25 years, he has served as a cornerstone and “granddaddy” of the jam band scene.

Wilson proposed to Trucks that they throw a birthday party for Hampton on the occasion of his 70th birthday. The Colonel was not only a client but a friend and mentor to both. The discussion quickly turned into a family affair, on both the production and musician sides.

It ended on the night of May 1, after four hours, during the second encore when the revered artist took the stage once more and fell to his knees, in what appeared to be a playful mock bow to guitar prodigy Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, his youngest protégé.

Surrounded by the musicians who came to honor his legacy, including Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, John Popper, Oliver Wood, Dave Schools, Chuck Leavell, Peter Buck and many other rock and jam band luminaries, and after thundering through “Turn On Your Love Light,” The Colonel suffered a heart attack and never got back up.

Colonel Bruce Hampton takes center stage for 'Hampton 70,' a celebration of his 70th birthday. Photo by Dave Vann

‡‡         An Event is Born

“Matt, who is my best friend and lawyer, came to me,” relates Kit Blanchard, hired as production manager for the event, “and said ‘Hey the Col. is turning 70, we should throw a concert for him!’ “The idea sounded to me like an old Bing Crosby movie, ‘We’re gonna do a show for the Colonel!’”

Blanchard first met Col. Bruce while working as production rigger for Phish, then later on with Widespread Panic. “Our paths have just crossed over the years, as the Colonel was always opening or sitting in with those guys, and for the past ten plus years, has been a staple on Jam Cruise, where I’ve been the main stage manager,” he says.

The event would also celebrate Georgia, since “we’re all Georgia Boys,” Blanchard recalls. Of the more than 30 musicians who responded, at least 60 percent were from Georgia, all of whom went through “the University of Bruce.” The Georgia Music Foundation has supported the effort from the beginning, as there is interest to inducting the Colonel. “We wanted to make sure this show looks like something we want our names on,” Blanchard adds.

Wilson, who took on the role of executive producer, sourced Georgia based companies and selected Music Matters (MM) to provide lights and sound. Stage manager Kenny Cresswell, owner of Atlanta based Avatar Events Group, provided backline.

“We did not put this on to be a money-making venture,” notes Wilson. “So we determined we would donate profits to charities. The Fox was gracious enough to invite us here to do this, so a portion is going to their Theatre Institute. When we asked Bruce about donating to a favorite charity, he pointed us to MusiCares.”

MM owner Aaron Soriero was offered the design duties when Chris Kuroda, lighting designer (and brother-in-law to Wilson) could not sign on due to previous commitments. “Aaron was really hip to doing the lighting design, and being a part of the project, because he is a big fan of the Col. like the rest of us,” says Blanchard.

Soriero submitted design renderings to the production team using Martin ShowDesigner 6, his preferred CAD program. Through his longstanding house LD stints at local Atlanta venues, The Tabernacle and Terminal West, he has acquired a solid body of design projects and “gained the skill set to be able to react quickly to the feel of the music. I have followed Col. Bruce’s music for years, and the jam band scene is practically in my DNA.” Over the last seven years, Soriero adds, he has built a show file and used it as his framework to run the show entirely on the fly.

Soriero based his design on providing the event “his best show ever,” beyond any budget considerations, by “bringing out all of my new toys to use all at once.” This included an M1 lighting console.

When asked why he chose the Martin product line, he explained, “It was through an educational process, really. Whenever we had to cross rent fixtures in the past, Martin’s were consistently better than other product lines we ran across.”

Bright beams and ovals of light. Photo by Dave Vann

‡‡         The Design

The Tyler GT truss structure of the rig formed concentric rings suggesting a Mandala of sorts, which helped created a basic layer of ovals of light. These were loaded with Martin MAC Quantum Washes and Vipers.

“I knew I needed good spot fixtures. With the Viper, I can get a tight beam and great gobo looks. The Quantum filled the need for a bigger fixture than the Mac Auras could. Their beam twister effects and front rotating prism provide the eye candy needed.”

For additional eye candy, Soriero positioned Marin Atomic 3000 LED’s with their unique Backlight Aura feature on the façade of the Mandela truss structure.

“The Martin Axiom is my current favorite fixture,” continues Soriero. “You could almost just have a rig full of these. It is the first beam/spot fixture I have seen that actually does the spot part really well. You get that natural cone from a spot and a complete rotating gobo package too.” Spread throughout the midstage area, the eight fixtures definitively enhanced the overall architecture to the looks Soriero created.

MAC Auras on side booms downstage left and right provided added coverage, depth, and layers to the frontline musicians. Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 72’s up lit the celestial backdrop.

‡‡         The Departure

After the show, amidst the stunned chaos that surrounded the surreal departure of the Colonel, one of the musicians told Soriero, “Man, that was just Bruce out there, messing with you!”

He was referring to the fact that Col. Bruce, a performance artist as well as musician, often would tweak their amps or electronics while on stage in an effort to push his musicians in broader directions and reach outside of their normal playing space.

As noted in memoriam, this would be the Colonel’s last show on earth. His fall to the stage was at first thought by all to be just another one of his usual antics onstage. His work and influence has touched a broad spectrum of musicians from the Allman Brothers to The Grateful Dead to Frank Zappa.


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