Oteil Burbridge: The Luckiest Man Alive October 9, 2018 21:00
Interview by Brett Hutchins
The rumbles of the Allman Brothers freight train and the ecstatic bliss of the Grateful Dead have had one singular common thread - low end master Oteil Burbridge. As bassist for the final edition of The Allman Brothers and now the ever-popular Dead and Company, Burbridge is well aware of his place in jam history and how lucky he is. But these gigs didn’t just happen. They’ve been stewing together since birth, immersed in a musical childhood, and pried and prodded by jam philosopher-in-chief, Col. Bruce Hampton. In front of a headlining gig at this weekend’s Suwannee Roots Revival, Burbridge dove deep with Live and Listen about Col. Bruce’s life lessons, fatherhood, the similarities of church and the Grateful Dead experience, and the importance of, at the very least, remembering to always try. If luck is when preparation meets opportunity, Oteil is its preeminent example.
You were immersed in the arts as a kid. How important was this to your future success?
Oteil: Absolutely crucial. Some of it you have to realize was necessity. It’s a good thing they looked at it that way. They were trying to keep us off the street. They threw everything at us - music, art, dance, acting, visual arts. They wanted to see what stuck and what we liked most. We were enjoying all of it. But for me and my brother Kofi, music was the strongest one. I also learned from my mom that your job was going to take up a huge chunk of your life time wise, so you should make it something you love. Mom enjoyed her work, and my dad not so much. I learned what kind of toll that can take on a person.
Were you and your brother having musical conversations as soon as you started banging on those instruments?
Oteil: He’s older than me, and it took me a while to be able to play anywhere near his level, which I’m still nowhere near. They discovered he had perfect pitch when he was seven years old, so he was someone that excelled at a really extreme rate. That was good for me because A - I thought that was normal, and B - it’s the mark I was shooting for. It helped me to push to where he was.
So it’s always been aspirational from you looking up to him?
Oteil: It still is. I’m still trying to catch up. By the time we were teenagers, we were starting to play together, so it took me a while.
Your name means explorer and wander in Egyptian. Do you ever feel like you were meant to play this type of exploratory music from the get-go?
Oteil: Oh yeah. And be on the road all the time. The African tradition is that your name has something to do with your destiny, so in my case, it was dead-on.
Talk about the Atlanta scene that got you started.
Oteil: When I moved to Atlanta with Kofi, we were just playing in cover bands, wedding bands, jazz bands. Anything to make ends meet. We had a rough time financially, but fortunately I met Col. Bruce, and my whole life took a complete left turn. I couldn’t have even begun to predict or envision how far to the left my career would go after meeting him. It was a great preparation for the Allman Brothers and Dead and Company. We had so much fun in that band mixing funk, bluegrass and blues, rock, everything. It was crazy. And more importantly, fun. That’s another lesson from Bruce - always have fun.
Was that relationship electric from the get go? He seems like the type of guy that as soon as you shook his hand, you knew something special was going.
Oteil: I’d say within 20 minutes of meeting him, I knew I was going to follow him.
What were the most important things he taught you, either in life or music?
Oteil: So many things. He taught me a new way of listening to music. I listened to music as a musician, but he taught me to listen as a human. He always stressed that in my playing. He wanted to hear all the other sides of you. He wanted music that sweats and bleeds and isn’t all dressed up and perfect. He liked that too, but you have to have both sides to really make it work.
You get that from a lot of folk , bluegrass, country, and blues. It does sweat. It does bleed. It’s like life. Sure you sometimes laugh and get all dressed up and perfumed up, but he wanted the pain, too. That’s something I now listen to in other people’s playing. A lot of the music I used to listen to doesn’t do it for me anymore, because it doesn’t sweat or bleed. I can’t smell it. I need more of the whole package.
So more feeling vs. thinking?
Oteil: Yes. I love intelligent playing, but if all I hear in someone’s music is how clever they are, it just isn’t enough for me anymore. When you’re a musician that’s just starting to play, and you came up in jazz and classical and all that, you’re focused on the mechanics and making sure you can actually play it. But that can quickly become the sole focus. When that happens, it’s a narrow vision of what music is capable of.
Watch Oteil performing w/ Col. Bruce & Aquarium Rescue Unit (1992) here:
You mention that back in those days you were super snobby about what you were listening to. What would Oteil from that era think about a pop star like John Mayer joining your band?
Oteil: I wasn’t even aware of him back then. I was deeply immersed in what happened in early recorded music. I had gone back to the mid to late 40’s and once Col Bruce came on board, we went back to the 20s and 30s and started studying classical as well. I had zero idea of what was going on on the radio.
Even at my age of 50, when I heard John Mayer was going to be a part of it, it surprised me. But I’ve learned you never know what’s going to happen and to never prejudge. Of course in being in the band with him, I was hoping people would give me, and us as a band, that same chance. If it wasn’t happening, it wasn’t happening. People can tell if the magic is there. We felt it as soon as we started rehearsing, but we didn’t know if the fans were going to buy it. Fortunately, they were feeling the same thing that we feel.
Was there a bit of a brotherhood between you, him, and Chimenti because of not being part of the core original members?
Oteil: Of course, as much because of our age than anything.
Is there a concerted effort by the three of you to inject some adrenaline into the shows sometimes?
Oteil: Yes, but it’s nothing that’s intellectually premeditated. We have a lot of energy, and that’s naturally going to happen. It’s not something we think about, in fact, it’s often times the opposite in that we have to force ourselves to reel it in or curtail it a little bit and not go off all the way too soon.
I’ve been following John for a while, and I know how excited he can get, not only when something’s clicking musically, but also how intensely he studies it.
Oteil: It’s good to have that tension. It’s good to play with cats that are older than you, and it’s good to see both sides of it with your own eyes and feel it. It’s good for us.
How intimidating were those first days of the Dead and Company experience, and how did you conquer those fears?
Oteil: You don’t. I tell my students all the time. You have to embrace doing it afraid. That’s another thing Col. Bruce used to always talk about. He called it embracing the mirror of embarrassment. You’re essentially getting naked on stage. It doesn’t matter how you feel about it. You have to be vulnerable and be willing to let the world see everything up there. I get nervous before I play. My stomach will be knotted up, but once we’re into a few songs the joy will rise up and obliterate the nerves.
Listen to John Mayer discuss playing w/ Oteil on 'Tales From The Golden Road' here:
Did you spend any time in the church growing up? Do see much of a connection between the secular musical experience and the church?
Oteil: I didn’t grow up in church. My parents were really scarred by the church, so much so that my dad was heavily against it. I had a very spiritual experience when I bottomed out at around age forty, and that caused me to investigate it. I’m sure I’d be considered a heretic now, but I do see a great correspondence between improvisational music - the dancing, the ecstatic nature of the beast - and spirituality of all kinds, whether it’s in church or not. When you get into this trance that music will get you, then your awareness is heightened. When you do it all together with a bunch of people, you achieve this group consciousness that really has a lot of what I believe is supernatural power. I do see a lot of correspondence. Probably more of the Pentecostal churches, where the music is a huge part of it, and it’s not subdued. It’s jammin’ pretty hard.
Especially in these big crowds with the Dead and Company shows. It gets stereotyped, but the energy is there. It’s palpable. You can feel it.
Oteil: It is, and it’s not like any other crowd. I’ve seen so many different bands and crowds, and this is a whole different animal. It’s a real positive time. We’re in a stadium playing a "Bird Song" or "Dark Star" that reminds me of a Miles Davis ballad for 20 or 30 minutes, and people are really listening. That’s something. People are really tuned in. It’s a different thing that I am super fortunate to experience from the stage.
How does being a new father approach either life or music?
Oteil: It’s changed everything. Every cliche is so true. He’s three and a half, and I can’t wait for him to get home from school so we can play. You always hear that you can’t imagine the quality of love that you will feel for your child. You won’t know until you have a child. It’s different than any sort of love - mom, dad, brother, sister, even your spouse. If you embrace it though, it can even deepen your love of your spouse. When we’re together, I’m like he’s part me and part her. It’s nuts. I had him late. I had him at 50, so my mind is at a better place, so I know to savor it and how quick it’s going to go.
You’re back at Suwannee Roots Revival Thursday with Oteil and Friends this weekend. Who are your friends?
Oteil: Scott Metzger (JRAD) on guitar, John Kadlecik (Further) on guitar, Jay Lane (Ratdog) on drums, Weedie Braimah on percussion, Alfreda Gerald on percussion, Jason Crosby (Phil & Friends) on keys, who used to play with me with the Peacemakers. It’s going to be smoking.
What makes the Suwannee grounds so special?
Oteil: I’ve always loved it. I’ve played there before the Allman Brothers, maybe five years before the Allman Brothers started playing there. The very last Wanee we did with the Allman Brothers, my wife and I camped there. I don’t even know if the moon was full, but the trails were so lit up even at night that we could see how to get back to the tent. All those trails were so lit up, and it was so mystical. I just remember being like “WHOA,” this is why they call it the SPIRIT of Suwannee. I could totally feel it. After all those years playing, I finally got the full taste by camping and got the whole shabang. It’s so beautiful.
In watching you play and reading your interviews, you seem like you are extremely in tune with the beauty of the world around you and how lucky you truly are. Do you have any sort of routine to keep that positivity flowing?
Oteil: It’s a constant fight on this planet. I’m trying to embrace all of it. I always say that the key to my happiness is getting closer and closer to radical acceptance. You can’t have peace all the time. It’s like the sun being out all the time. Night has to exist. I get better at not dealing with the negative stuff, but accepting it for what it is. I fail all the time. Try running through the airport with a three year old. That little guy knows he can work us. He wins sometimes, and I lose it. I try to do my best, but I’m just average.
It’s also realize easier for me. I play music for a living. I’m not driving hours to the office to a job I can’t stand. Life is going to challenge you, so just try. Trying counts for something.
Despite Hurricane Michael, this weekend’s Suwannee Roots Revival is still on at the beautiful Spirit of Suwannee Music Park.