DEAD & CO: Oteil Burbridge returns to a ‘special’ place
The bassist honed his chops in Atlanta with Col. Bruce Hampton
“I really don’t like big crowds, loud noise, or long-distance travel,” Oteil Burbridge says with a laugh when discussing his current gig as the bassist for Dead & Co. The band, which includes former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Mickey Hart, as well as guitarist John Mayer, is known for playing outdoor sheds and festivals at high volume as they trek across the United States and back again. Burbridge is no stranger to Atlanta audiences, having first gained notoriety playing bass with Col. Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit in the late ‘80s.
Growing up in Washington, DC, Burbridge was heavily influenced by his father’s love of jazz. As a kid, Burbridge never would have guessed that his musical future would one day position him as the bassist for two rock bands heavily influenced by jazz-like improvisation, The Allman Brothers Band and Dead & Co.
“For my dad, jazz was the highest,” says Burbridge, “also soul, R&B, gospel and funk. Not really Delta blues though…I think it reminded him of slavery. He was born in ‘31 and [white people] were telling him he was less than a person. He was like, ‘Go play like Art Tatum and go screw yourself!’ So, to him the stuff with lots of chops showed that black people had a high intellect. He had country records, bluegrass, classical and Indian classical. He was fascinated by music, but it was jazz…that was it!”
Leaving DC at 19, Burbridge moved to Atlanta in 1986. Nashville and Birmingham were also home before he returned to Atlanta where he met Hampton. He now lives in Boca Raton, FL. “I bounced around…typical musician bouncing around,” he says. “But I still was based out of Atlanta for a long time because of the Colonel.”
As his upbringing did not include much in the way of American rock ’n' roll, when Burbridge auditioned for the Allman Brothers band around 1997 he had never really spent much time with their music. The same could be said when he was considered for the Dead & Co. gig in 2015. “[I had a] total blind spot to the Dead and the Allman Brothers,” he says. “Well let me point out one thing, who removed the blind spot for me? The Colonel! And it wasn't by playing me Dead and Allman Brothers. It was by his playing me all the stuff that they were into. They were really, really into Black music. Col. Bruce is the one that filled in my blind spot. That's when I got John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Bukka White, Son House, Robert Johnson…all those guys. The really old blues stuff. And that was my southern journey. And also, bluegrass and the really, really old gospel stuff where there is no band. They’re just stomping their feet or banging the broomstick. And also, the out (jazz) stuff…because the Colonel was way out…like Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler…all that stuff. So, when I got with Col. Bruce, that prepared me for the stuff to get the Allman Brothers gig. Once I'd gotten those parts filled in, when I got the call from the Allman Brothers, I was ready.”
When he auditioned for the Allman Brothers Band he often answered “no” when asked if he knew this ABB song or that ABB song. Clearly his potential secured him the position…that and the influence of famed music producer Tom Dowd. The final two candidates to fill the spot as the new Allman Brothers bassist were Burbridge and another guy who was far more familiar with their music, was from Alabama, and may have actually sounded like he should be in the band. “Tom Dowd said (to the Allman Brothers), ‘Look if you want to faithfully recreate the past, you should go with (the other guy), he knows where you come from, he’s an Alabama guy,’” recounts Burbridge. “‘But if you want to chart some new territory and take it to some places where you haven't been before, I think you should get Oteil.’ He knew they weren't going to say, ‘Well we're just going to rest on our laurels and repeat what we did before.’ You know he set them up. So, I am always so grateful for Tom Dowd for that.”
The past and the present are constantly swirling in Burbridge’s brain. Being on the road with an outfit as big as Dead & Co. certainly contrasts with how he used to travel as a musician. “Now we stay at these hotels,” says Burbridge. “It's funny because now I look out the window of whatever five-star hotel and I’m trying to remember…how could I ever have imagined getting to this point. Because Atlanta is the place that I really starved. That's the first place where I was like almost living out of my car. And that was from me also being stubborn, because, you know, I said to myself, ‘I just want to be a player. I only want to be a musician.’ And that even extended to teaching. I said, ‘I don't want to be a teacher I want to be a player. I'm not going to sell pot, I'm a musician. I'm not a pot dealer. I'm not a teacher.’ So, I could have had it easier money wise. Now I'm like ‘Damn! Why didn't you teach more?’ I teach now, and I actually love it. But back then it was hard, so I think about those times when I’m staying at the Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton.”
In addition to lodging, his perspective regarding Atlanta’s most notable summer shed has also changed. “My first time going to Lakewood was playing there with the Colonel on the H.O.R.D.E. Tour in ’92,” Burbridge remembers. “And I was just like, wow this is huge. We were there at 4 in the afternoon or 4:30 whenever we went on, so nobody was in there, and it looked even bigger.”
Even though he’s from DC, Atlanta is still a special place in Burbridge’s personal history. “I don't want to say Atlanta’s not special because it is it is,” he says. “Every once in a while, it may not be when I'm on tour, I'll get to Little Five Points and see the old spots. I lived in Atlanta for a little while, that's where my son Nigel was born so I got to revisit all that. I hooked up with the Colonel again you know like kind of revisited [Atlanta] many years later.”
Sidemen often go unnoticed, but Burbridge has stood out to those who know talent, grace, and class when they see it. His current tour with Dead and Co., promoted as the band’s last, will perhaps close this chapter in his career. The Allman Brothers retired in 2014 and although they were not playing together at the time, Hampton passed away in 2017. “It's funny because last year I finally found a poster from 1969: Atlanta Sportatorium, Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band and the Hampton Grease Band,” says Burbridge. “I was like oh man. I’ve played with all three of those guys. I was like (looks skyward), I see you g-d, I see what you were doing all the way back then!” (The actual event was May 10, 1970, at the Atlanta Sports Arena.)
Be it “Memory Is a Gimmick,” a sweet “Liz Reed” or a deep “Dark Star,” musical improvisation has held steady for Burbridge. So, at any time during their upcoming Lakewood show, anything can happen and Dead & Co. may wind up playing a song that was not considered prior to the show. “It's built into the philosophy that if this tune reminds you of something, if someone quotes it, you just do the fishhook [puts finger in side of mouth]” says Burbridge. “It's baked into the cake. If you play something, people respond. So, it might happen and it might not. Maybe someone just plays it back at you and we keep in the same tune. The spirit decides which way it's going to go, and I love that!” —CL—
$SOLD OUT. 7pm. Lakewood Amphitheatre, 2002 Lakewood Way, Atlanta, GA 30315. livenation.com