This story was originally published on June 1, 2006.
It's been 33 years since the end of Atlanta's Hampton Grease Band, and though various members have played together through the years, there's never been a complete reunion. On Friday night at the Variety Playhouse, it's going to be as complete as it ever can be. Though Bruce Hampton is back for the first time, guitarist Harold Kelling died in May 2005. Bob Elsey of the Swimming Pool Q's will fill in for Kelling.
The original quintet --- Hampton, Kelling, Glenn Phillips, Mike Holbrook, Jerry Fields --- was doing impromptu free shows in Piedmont Park by the late '60s, and would eventually play shows with folks such as Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers Band, the Grateful Dead and obvious kindred spirits Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band.
The Grease Band released just one album, but 1971's "Music to Eat" is a cultishly adored and improvisationally adventurous double vinyl freakout that, legend has it, was the second worst-selling album in Columbia Records history at the time. After being deleted from the label's catalog, it became a collector's item, fetching many times its original selling price. The album was eventually reissued on CD in the '90s, but it's once again out of print. Good luck scoring one for less than $50.
Or you can just hear it all live Friday night.
What brought about this long-delayed reunion? "I think it probably was connected with Harold's death, " says guitarist Phillips, who still performs with his own band and in the Supreme Court with Swimming Pool Q's leader Jeff Calder. "At the time, we did a tribute show. That's when we got really deep into trying to work this material up. After losing Harold, I felt this emotional need to reconnect with all this time I had shared with him."
The one person missing from last year's reunion --- and an earlier one celebrating Phillips' 50th birthday --- was the band's vocalist, Bruce Hampton. Since the Grease Band, he's remained an active performer with outfits such as Aquarium Rescue Unit, Late Bronze Age, Fiji Mariners and the Codetalkers. "Bruce is, artistically, a very restless soul, " Phillips says. "Throughout his career, he's gone from one band to another and it's just his nature."
"I think it took a long time for him to want to come back to reconnect with something like this --- to where he felt comfortable about it. As much as I would have liked to have had [the reunion] sooner, I've always told him, 'You're a grown man and you should do what you feel right about doing.' At this point, he does seem to genuinely feel like that."
Hampton Grease Band 8:30 p.m. Friday (June 2, 2006). $20. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-521-1786, 404-524-7354, www.variety-playhouse.com.