Oteil Burbridge Discusses Singing With Dead & Company, African-American Music’s Influence On Grateful Dead & More

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Dead & Company bassist Oteil Burbridge joined Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux and historian Gary Lambert on the Shakedown Stream pre-show on Friday ahead of GD’s July 7, 1989 performance at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. Oteil, Gary and David discussed a number of subjects including Burbridge singing with D&C, African-American music’s influence on the Grateful Dead and more.

After Gary and David chatted a bit, they welcomed Oteil and talked about how the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak has affected the music community and Oteil personally. Burbridge spoke about the domino effect of things that have happened like mothers having to leave the workforce to take care of their children because schools are closed. But he also talked about spending more time with his children as a silver lining.

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The trio then discussed the beneficiary of the webcast, the ACLU, and their century-long fight for civil rights before talking about the Grateful Dead community with Oteil remarking that with unemployment, communities are having to really come together and that “the whole world, the whole country… is gonna be on Shakedown Street.”

Oteil then fielded a question about the songs he sings with D&C and how they decide who sings what. Burbridge talked about his “favorite song of all-time,” “China Doll,” and how during rehearsal nobody stepped up to sing and Bob Weir then asked John Mayer. But because of his vocal surgery, there was a certain range John could not hit. Bobby didn’t really want to sing it and Oteil said he was watching “‘China Doll’ fly away.” So he spoke up and said, “guys, this is right in my range. I’ll be happy to sing it.” Oteil then talks about how he was nervous to chime in. “My heart was beating a little fast,” he continued. “But it was just crickets.” Burbridge then relates how Bob Weir’s manager Matt Busch told him that if he wanted to sing something to just step to the mic and belt it out. “That’s the Grateful Dead,” Bush told Burbridge. “Everybody just falls in.”

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Oteil also addressed African-American music’s influence on the Grateful Dead. “Consider for a minute what the music of the Grateful Dead would be without Black American influence?” He asked. “We should do this as an exercise. Let’s take every song with the slightest bit of Black American influence and cross it off the setlist and see how many songs we’re short…and you’d have to rename this stream.” The last comment Oteil is referring to the funk-influenced “Shakedown Street.”

The trio also discussed how Oteil and his family have participated in the protests in the movement for racial justice and equality, his Aquarium Rescue Unit band mate, the late great Col. Bruce Hampton, and his lessons for D&C as well as Burbridge’s vision for how the world can heal. It’s a fascinating interview. Watch it in its entirety below:

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