can’t see the forest

The Codetalkers’ Brand of Deep-Fried Jazz

Posted in jazz, Live Music by Curtis on 8/31/06

I’m still working on the third and final part of my climate change series, and I need a break from that topic just for the sake of preserving clarity, so I decided to write briefly about one of my favorite bands in the world: The Codetalkers.

The CodetalkersThe Codetalkers are based out of Atlanta, Georgia, where they formed in late 1999. Originally billed as Colonel Bruce Hampton (ret.) and the Codetalkers, they now go by simply the Codetalkers as superguitarist Bobby Lee Rodgers continues to assume a more visceral lead role—he’s been the brains behind the music since the group’s inception but has recently established a role for himself as the frontman for sho’. The band couldn’t be in the hands of a more capable maestro.

Guitarist and vocalist Bruce Hampton is the godfather of Southern alternative jazz/rock. He’s not a household name, but he is a legend among certain musical circles and has also graced the silver screen with a minor role in Slingblade and a starring role in Mike Gordon’s film Outside Out, in which he plays himself (more or less) as a guitar instructor who unlearns his student how to wail on the thang through the medium of a bizarrely interactive outstructional video.

In real life, Hampton has played a major role as a developer of up-and-coming musical talent; he was instrumental in the formation of Widespread Panic and in the Athens, Georgia scene in general, and has led such groups as his Aquarium Rescue Unit (with Jimmy Herring and Oteil Burbridge, among others) and Fiji Mariners from obscurity to acclaim. In the early days of his career he led the infamous Hampton Grease Band and also played with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Like a phoenix, Hampton always seems to rise from the ashes of the former into a firey new future, and the Codetalkers is his latest incarnation.

Hampton formed the Codetalkers after meeting guitarist Bobby Lee Rodgers, an alumn and faculty member of Berklee. Their astrological charts were in agreement, and Hampton correctly guessed Rodgers’ birthday. The rest is the history of the future.

Rodgers’ distinctive brand of jazz-inflected country/surf/rockabilly/punk/acid music meshes well with Hampton’s zany but consummately soulful antics. Throw in the amazing Tyler Greenwell on drums and the positively disturbing Ted Pecchio on the standup bass, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a damn good time. It’s vaguely familiar, and yet like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Rodgers is a man with serious chops—fearsome chops, in fact—but he can also croon an easygoing ballad with the best of them. He is a refreshingly direct and unpretentious songwriter, which belies his extensive musical training and knowledge. The net effect is a subtle sophistication you’ll not forget. Rodgers also runs his own solo outfit, and he can strike a groove all by his lonesome that would rival the pizazz of a Zambiland Marching Band.

I was priveleged to be able to follow these guys in their halcyon days…they came frequently to Crossroads Cafe in my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, and it was not unlike me to travel as far as Birmingham or Atlanta to catch a set. Since moving to the Pacific Northwest I’ve done my best to stay caught up through the Web. Once a fan, always a fan. In the early times they covered much more of Hampton’s music than they do presently. Rodgers’ tunes never leave me hanging, not even for an instant, but I confess I miss some of those old renditions, particularly “Planet Earth” and “Ain’t No Egos Underwater.” My favorite tune of Rodgers’ is one of his simplest and hardest-rocking—you’ll get your share of gospel when he cranks up that rotary horn and the world comes “Tumblin’ Down.”

Well, they’ve grown and progressed famously since those days, and now tour much of the nation on a regular basis. Their latest album, Now, has been a big success and is worth a listen or fifty. They’ve made multiple appearances at Bonnaroo and other music festivals around the country; they recently climbed the Rockies and will soon be working their way up the east coast like it ain’t nothin’. One of these days we’re gonna get them up to Oregon; I know Portland, and Portland would treat them very well. Can we say ‘Crystal Ballroom,’ for one?

It’s really hard to describe Hampton’s incredible stage presence, much less that of the band as a whole. Nowadays the whole band wears business suits and seems to take the stage ready for a PowerPoint presentation—well, appearances can be deceiving. I remember seeing Hampton take the stage in K-Mart sweats and tenny boppers many a night, with everyone else all decked out for funky business. He sometimes perches on a barstool at the side of the stage, interjecting the occasional soulful verse and Mercurial-screaming-loud three-note blues motif over whatever happens to be cooking at the moment.  I’ve seen him go a whole set without doing anything at all, but he remained as much a part of the music as anyone else, regardless. His presence is such that, when he stands up to hit a lick, the whole crowd gasps at the silent force of the resulting subspace shock wave—and that’s no mere hyperbole. Likely as not, he’ll sit right down again—and only then start playin’. He sometimes fiddles with knobs that aren’t there and has been known to knock over whole amp rigs for no apparent reason. Colonel Bruce, as his fans affectionately know him, is truly the Daddy Of Us All. Come meet the man whose astromusical protegés include Derek Trucks, John Bell, and many more, and the band whose cohorts have included Mike Gordon of Phish and Atlanta Hammond organ genius Ike Stubblefield. Gotta see it to believe it, or to even try.

Whoever you are and wherever you are, don’t pass up a chance to see these guys—and if you happen to notice a giant waffle floating serenely across the desert sands, do a double-take to make sure the Codetalkers aren’t on board. If they are, hitch a ride. Saturn’s just around the bend. – Free downloads of live music by the Codetalkers – Check out the CTs’ video from Bonnaroo ’06 – look for the Bonnaroo button on the left and don’t miss ‘Miss Hawaii’ – site for Mike Gordon’s film starring Bruce Hampton – you gotta check this out – blog on Colonel Bruce  


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  1. Mary Fairechild said, on 1/18/07 at 1:46 am

    Google is the best search engine

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