Words by: Chad Berndtson
Seriously, is there anybody out there who hasn’t worked with Oteil Burbridge?
There’s the staggering resume, from The Allman Brothers Band and Aquarium Rescue Unit to the Zac Brown Band, Vida Blue, Gov’t Mule, Victor Wooten, Tedeschi Trucks Band, BK3, his own Oteil & The Peacemakers, and his current assignment as a member of Dead & Company.
There’s the warmth and creativity — get anyone who’s played with Burbridge going on what an inspiring spirit he is, and you’ll get your ear talked off.
And of course there are the chops and relentless musicality. Burbridge is widely acknowledged as a legend of his instrument, and it’s for a reason.
This year will be remembered as one of Burbridge’s most adventurous, not least for Dead & Company but also for his just-released album Water in the Desert. It’s Oteil’s first release under his own name in ages — we’re more than a decade now since The Peacemakers band was active — and it’s deeply felt, close and personal, with songs he’s had for many years. That it comes during a year that he’ll also remember as one of his hardest — from painful losses in Gregg Allman, Butch Trucks and Col. Bruce Hampton to a health scare involving brother and longtime collaborator Kofi — isn’t an accident.
Burbridge will celebrate the release with a 10-date tour that starts on Halloween in Philadelphia and winds up November 9 in New York. He’s assembled a band of heavyweights called Oteil & Friends that includes guitarists Eric Krasno and John Kadlecik, singer Alfreda Gerald, drummer Jay Lane, keyboardist Melvin Seals and percussionist Weedie Braimah. (Seals will not be at the November 6 and 9 dates.)
Here’s the man himself:
JAMBASE: We’re all really excited for your Oteil & Friends tour. How did you pick this lineup? It’s a pretty decorated crew!
OTEIL BURBRIDGE: I was just daydreaming, really. Who would actually be free during that time period was also a big factor. I called my three favorite players on each instrument to see who might be free to do it. I really got lucky that all these people were available.
JAMBASE: Have you played with everyone in the band extensively before? Obviously you go back a ways with guys like Krasno.
OB: I go back the farthest with Alfreda. We played together when I was in my early 20s. I lost touch with her for many years and tracked her down right before I did my last record. She is still absolutely mind-blowing. People are going to freak out when they witness what she does live. It’s like a hurricane, a gentle sun shower and a sublime sunset by the time she’s all done. I’ve known Krasno for a really long time now and we’ve done a lot of shows together. Our chemistry just gets better and better. We’ve had some gigs together at New Orleans Jazz Fest that I will never forget for the rest of my life.
John K. and I started working together more recently even though I think we crossed paths back in olden times! John has helped me so much with all things Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. He’s like a professor, and not just about the Dead. What a beautiful mind he has. Melvin and I started working together more recently with JGB. My first time playing with him was at the Warfield in San Francisco last February with Jackie [LaBranch] and Gloria [Jones]. That was special. Weedie, I met at New Orleans Jazz Fest three years ago or so. I usually play with him every year at Jazz Fest. What a force of nature he is. Actually my very first gig with Jay Lane was just a couple of months ago on my birthday in Colorado. So many people that we both played with have said for many years that we should play together so I figured we would gel together. They couldn’t all be wrong. He knows a lot of the material I want to do and is in the family so to speak. It’s a really great team.
JAMBASE: Why is now the right time for you to lead and take out a new band?
OB: Geez I don’t even know. Ten years ago, I took my band off the road and started deliberately trying to cultivate a home life. That’s something many road musicians don’t think about that much. The better it gets the more you like being home. It was time to put this record out so I kind of had to tour. I wrote all of these songs eight to nine years ago. Since then, I’ve just been living life and it kept ending up on the back burner. Since my son Nigel was born two and a half years ago my life is 180 degrees different from where it was when I wrote those songs. I really love the music though and it is an accurate snapshot of where my head was at then.
JAMBASE: Can you share what you’ll be playing? Will the live repertoire focus on the Water In The Desert material? What else?
OB: Actually, like I said before, my head is in a really different place musically now. There are a couple of tunes I’ll do from my album but I’m really more focused on these new Garcia tunes that I’ve been working so hard on. I also just want to play the music from my past that I like the most and that is also related to Col. Bruce, The Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead. With the passing of so many of those people that so greatly shaped the story of my adult life I feel like it connects me to them. There’s funk, blues, reggae, country, bluegrass, soul, gospel, rock … all my favorite stuff. I guess I’m being a little selfish using this tour and time in my life to reflect on and pay homage to these men that so profoundly influenced my life. It’s just now that I am understanding fully how much they meant.
JAMBASE: You mentioned that the Water In The Desert tunes go back a decade in terms of writing. Are you a constant writer? You had The Peacemakers band even before that and did three albums with that band — is this newer material of a piece with what you were working on back then?
OB: This stuff was never meant to be Peacemakers material really. I wanted other singers besides me on it! I feel like I’ve just now found my voice singing-wise. I just write when the inspiration hits me.
JAMBASE: What’s different about you as a musician now versus then?
OB: It’s more about what’s different about me as a person now. I didn’t feel any sense of hope for this planet before I met Jess [Burbridge, his wife]. I never wanted children. I thought it was wrong to bring them here when the human race is so screwed up. We’re not even leaving them a sustainable environment that they can live in. We’re screwing up their air, water and land.
I remember Page McConnell telling me that his daughter Delia gave him a real and true sense of hope. I couldn’t imagine it. Now I know exactly what he was talking about. There’s a spiritual element to humans and this planet that trumps all of our bullshit. And I’m including my own bullshit in there. When I watch Nigel it’s so clear to me now. I can’t believe that I almost didn’t experience this. I’m forever grateful to Jess that she came to me that day and said she wanted to have a baby. Also, because of my age, when you realize that fully half of the sands in your hourglass are in the bottom then you feel like time is more valuable than money. There’s no guarantees on how much time we have left. It makes me want to be home as much as I possibly can. I don’t want to miss the magic that’s happening at home. Even if we are in the terrible twos! Whew! Lord have mercy.
JAMBASE: Everyone seemed pretty pumped about this summer’s Dead & Company tour, and we’re gearing up for a fall run starting in mid-November. What’s the biggest difference between Dead & Company in 2015 and 2016 and Dead & Company now?
OB: The biggest difference is just time honestly. Red wine tastes better and better the longer it ages. The more time and energy John [Mayer] and I devote to this music and the more time we get to play with Bill [Kreutzmann], Bob [Weir], Mickey [Hart] and Jeff [Chimenti], the better it gets. It’s a natural progression. I bet this fall will be even better than last summer.
JAMBASE: You’re starting to sing more in Dead & Company and stretch out. Has it been a conscious discussion with the other band members about where/when to inject more of yourself or is it just, “I’m comfortable enough and I’m going to take chances?”
OB: I’m just letting things happen when they seem to want to. I’ve wanted to sing from the beginning but I never pushed it. I figured nobody in the audience was paying to hear me sing so no biggie. One of my favorite historians (Dan Carlin) says that the more he looks back at history the more he thinks we’re just along for the ride. Do men shape the events of history or vice versa? Maybe history wants me to sing. I’m super grateful to the band that they’ve given me the opportunity. It’s strange because I feel more comfortable singing Garcia/Hunter songs than I do my own! That’s so crazy to me, but it’s also a testament to what a great songwriting team they were. It blows my mind on a daily basis. I know about 17 Garcia/Hunter tunes now including some JGB ones. It’s such a strange and beautiful feeling each time I learn a new one and it feels like I’ve been waiting my whole life for it but didn’t have a clue.
JAMBASE: Why did you guys decide not to do a New Year’s run this year? Will you be playing any shows at the end of the year?
OB: I have no idea! I’m just the bass player!
JAMBASE: It’s obviously been an incredibly heavy year in terms of loss and some scary things that hit close to home for you and the extended Burbridge family, from Gregg and Butch to the Colonel and of course Kofi, whom we’re so happy to see back on stage. What do you take away from 2017?
OB: I pretend I only have six months to live and imagine what I would do differently. I’ll take a risk to achieve my own happiness and do it sooner than later. I may have a lot less “later” than I think. Time is more valuable than money. “No” can be one of the most positive words in any language. People can change. I try to practice acceptance a little bit more each day. This one is the hardest for me.
JAMBASE: What will your focus be in 2018?
OB: Figuring out how to give back. There’s such overwhelming need all around the world.