Making Peace With The Low End: Oteil Burbridge Talks Dead & Co, Allmans & More

By Chad Berndtson Jun 16, 2016 9:30 am PDT

Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Joel Cummins, Scott Sharrard, Marco Benevento, Kyle Hollingsworth, Tim Reynolds, Eddie Roberts and many more. (A full archive of The Art of the Sit-In is here.)

Words by: Chad Berndtson

All hail Oteil Burbridge, one of the acknowledged gods of bass playing and one of the scene’s most visible and enduring characters.

It doesn’t seem possible that Oteil has been on bass for so many bands in so many critical eras and on so many stages big and small, but the resume speaks for itself: Aquarium Rescue Unit, Vida Blue, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Zac Brown Band, BK3, Oteil & The Peacemakers, and, of course, The Allman Brothers Band, which Burbridge anchored for 17 wild years, and plenty of highs and lows.

It turned out, however, one of his biggest assignments was still to come. No sooner did The Allmans finally wind down in 2014 that Burbridge traded that stage for another storied stead: the Grateful Dead. He’s now touring the country as bassist for Dead & Company, which combines Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann with John Mayer, Jeff Chimenti and himself, and is winning converts as it attempts to write the next chapter in the post-Grateful Dead era of flame-keepers.

These are heady times for Burbridge, who when not expanding his embrace of the Dead catalog and getting deep into pockets and space with the Rhythm Devils, is chasing after his 1-year-old son, Nigel.

I caught up with Burbridge just after Dead & Company’s applauded performance at Bonnaroo, where another important figure in Dead lore, Donna Jean Godchaux-Mackay, had been a surprise sit-in guest.

JAMBASE: What was your first thought when the members of the Dead approached you about the Dead & Company concept? Who made that call to you?

OTEIL BURBRIDGE: I was first called by Matt Busch, who is Bob Weir’s personal manager. I was psyched but it sure sounded crazy. The Dead with Mayer? I had learned some of their songbook before but probably only about 15 or so tunes. I was in a trio with Kreutzmann and Scott Murawski called BK3. Mike Gordon turned me onto that gig. He was the bassist in it before I was. I was and still am game for living out in left field though. I was like, “Let’s do this!”

JAMBASE: What was the “X factor” that made you commit to this?

OB: There was no X factor really. Who wouldn’t take this gig? I knew I would like playing the music of the Grateful Dead in almost any lineup as long as it was with people who really loved the music. Plus, I just had my first child a mere nine months prior to getting the gig. What an amazing opportunity career-wise. The biggest one of my entire life. I’ve never played stadiums before!

JAMBASE: What’s the key to immersing in that music? Obviously you were in the band with Kreutzmann. What’s been the most helpful learning experience?

OB: The most helpful thing is listening to it around the house or in the car. Any time or place when I don’t have a bass in my hand. It’s really the lyrics that lead you through most of the tricky parts. Those parts were written to conform to the lyrics. If you learn the music from osmosis it’s a more thorough way to internalize it. For me anyway.

JAMBASE: Talk about John Mayer as a musician. You’ve played with a lot of guitar players, singers, everyone. What’s something people may not know about him or understand about him?

OB: I think people that have followed him are pretty well aware of all his different skill sets. He has played and recorded with an extremely wide range of musicians. He’s a really intelligent person and bores easily. He likes to live “down the rabbit hole” as it were. If that hole doesn’t go very far he’s gonna back out and go onto the next one. The Jerry rabbit hole comes out somewhere in China so I think we’ll be seeing him around for awhile. That’s how he’s gotten so good at so many different styles of music, as well as singing and songwriting. He’s quite a gifted individual. I am really glad to get the chance to learn his playing, his tendencies. He loves a strong groove and I think that’s where one of our biggest sweet spots is together.

JAMBASE: You know Phil Lesh, but do you talk to him at all about the work you do with Dead & Co? Did you seek him out before you joined the band?

OB: No, I didn’t, but I recently saw him and Terrapin Crossroads with his band while Dead & Company were rehearsing in San Rafael and got to speak to him for a while. I basically thanked him for all the little musical gifts he left me like Easter eggs hidden in each song. I think he was happy that I noticed. If we ever get to sit down in a setting apart from a gig it would great to chat with him about some of my discoveries to see what his initial motivation was for each instance. But I think I know anyway. Everything is done in the interest of testing out each possibility. It usually turns out that they all work!

JAMBASE: Do you have favorite songs in the Dead catalog? Can you give an example?

OB: That’s gonna take a lot of space but you asked! Pretty much all their slow songs. “China Doll,” “Stella Blue,” “Looks Like Rain,” “Brokedown Palace,” “Crazy Fingers,” “Birdsong,” “Dark Star,” “Ship Of Fools,” “The Wheel,” “Standing On The Moon,” “Loser,” “Morning Dew,” “Lost Sailor,” “Black Throated Wind,” “Row Jimmy.”

Then there’s “Tennessee Jed,” “Jack Straw,” “Estimated Prophet,” “St Stephen,” “Terrapin,” “Brown Eyed Women,” “Ramble On Rose,” “He’s Gone,” “Sugar Magnolia,” “Cassidy,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “Bertha,” “Eyes Of The World,” “They Love Each Other,” “Althea,” “The Other One” … Shall I go on? I have plenty more favorites.

JAMBASE: You’ve played with Billy before, but what’s the challenge, if there is one, playing with both him and Mickey at the same time? You’ve obviously played in a two-drummer setup before but The Allmans and the Dead are of course very different.

OB: Honestly the two drummer thing has never been a problem for me. I have always listened to them as one gigantic octopus drummer. Seventeen years with The Allman Brothers Band makes it easier still. It’s only a hang up if you play the mind game. I never did.

JAMBASE: Are you ready to commit to Dead & Company long term?

OB: Sure, I already have. But I also have zero expectations. Any of us could get hit by a car and die today, so long term doesn’t really mean anything to me in terms of career, only family. I hope for the best and expect nothing. I heard a preacher say one time that expectations are just premeditated resentments. [laughs] They really nailed that one!

JAMBASE: Is there anything left to say about the end of The Allman Brothers Band now that it’s been almost two years? Do you miss it at this time of year?

OB: Honestly, not really. It needed to end when it did. It wasn’t feeling good anymore by that point. At least not to me anyway. I also get to play with Butch [Trucks], Jaimoe, Marc [Quiñones] and Jack Pearson pretty regularly so I still play those songs, it’s still in my life. We obviously needed a break from each other. Everyone is still on the road playing just not with each other, so you do the math. Gregg [Allman] texted all of us right before the last Wanee about trying to put something together next year but I haven’t heard anything since then. I told him that I was down for it. I guess enough time has passed for him.

JAMBASE: Do you stay in regular touch with the members of the ABB?

OB: It’s been awhile since I’ve talked to Derek [Trucks], Warren [Haynes] and Gregg. They’re out on the road constantly. Obviously I see the other guys more since we still play together. Warren texts me every once in awhile about a gig. I texted everyone when [my son] Nigel was born. Sometimes I send a text, maybe of something funny that I came across or if I know someone is going through a hard time with something personal. But my life focus has radically shifted to my son and home life in general. And trying to learn hundreds of Grateful Dead songs!

JAMBASE: I want to touch on the reunion of Col. Bruce & The Aquarium Rescue Unit. Holy cow were those fun shows to witness last year, and I imagine they must have been as much fun to play. Col. Bruce mentioned at the time that you were able to get the tour together because finally you and he and Jimmy were free at the same time. Do you envision being able to do it more — have you talked about it with those guys?

OB: I think we’ll definitely do more down the road. We constantly get great offers for the band from festivals and such but it’s always a matter of scheduling. Maybe now that Widespread Panic is scaling back their road schedule it will be a little easier.

JAMBASE: Whether in any of these bands or any of the other things you do, how do you think you’ve changed most as a player over the last 10 years? What’s different, or at least evolved? Has the way in which you think about music changed much given all these experiences you’ve had?

OB: Getting older is the best thing of all. Being older is like being a movie editor. You see all the unnecessary stuff and it ends up on the cutting room floor. You only have so much time in your life and there’s not a whole lot of it. A lot of stuff just has to go. The cutting room is where you spend a lot more time when you’re older. Onstage and off.

JAMBASE: We always close with a favorite sit-in story. Recent, or a long time ago, you with someone else’s band or someone with a band you play in. What jumps out and why?

OB: My favorite sit-ins are when the bass player stays up there and we roll with two basses. It’s easier if I don’t know the song that well. But really with sit-ins they’re all different, so who knows? Sit-ins are the kind of thing that have so many things going against you from the outset. You’re in someone else’s band, so the rig probably isn’t yours, so you won’t have your optimum sound, etc. So once you put all that aside, if you are able to have a carefree attitude about the way it’s going to turn out then they can be extremely fun.

I guess my last two favorite sit-ins were both with Lettuce. Once on the last Jam Cruise on the pool deck and at the last New Orleans Jazz Fest. When Jesus [Lettuce bassist Erick Coomes] is kicking bass underneath me and I’m bouncing on the California king-sized bed of funk that is Lettuce, it’s hard to not get off all the way!

Oh and Lord, Jesus don’t let me forget the Earth Wind & Power set at Jazz Fest. The Nth Power and Skerik, Natalie Cressman, Farnell Newton, James Casey, Jen Hartswick, Shmeeans and Kofi Burbridge! What can you even say? They went all the way. You’ve got to see that show. That night changed my life.

JAMBASE: And with you just having come off Bonnaroo and a surprise Donna Jean sit-in, can you talk about that?

OB: It was so cool to talk with her. We know so many of the same people because I lived in Birmingham, Alabama for 18 years and recorded with so many of her people: Johnny Sandlin, Roger Hawkins, Clayton Ivey, Bill Stewart, Kelvin Holly, Scott Boyer, Tommy Talton and Spooner Oldham. We just never ended up meeting!

It was the same for Jimmy Hall. He rode on the bus to Bonnaroo with us and he told me that even he had never met her. I guess it was because she went to the West Coast. Coincidentally I was wearing my Muscle Shoals T- shirt that day! I had a great time talking with her and making all those connections. I learned some great history about the Dead too. It was a magic time at Bonnaroo this year. Playing with Donna Jean and hearing those parts from the early days was awesome.

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