11/09/15 Dead & Company's Oteil Burbridge Shares His Grateful Dead, John Mayer Experiences
Now three shows into their tour, the new Dead & Company band has been turning heads left and right with their emphatic renditions of Grateful Dead classics. The ensemble features three members of the Dead, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, alongside longtime contributing keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and two newcomers: John Mayer and Oteil Burbridge.
Obviously Mayer, well known for his contributions to the pop genre, has been shining in the media spotlight. Fortunately, we were able to catch up with the other newcomer, the incredible bassist Oteil Burbridge, who has spent a career making a name for himself in bands like The Aquarium Rescue Unit, Tedeschi Trucks Band, The Allman Brothers Band and so many more. Our very own Kendall Deflin spoke to Oteil about his new role in the Grateful universe...
L4LM: Oteil, the world was shocked when the Dead & Co. tour was announced. Can you tell us about your initial reactions when you officially got the gig?
OB: I don't know if I could really put it into words. My 17-year tenure with the Allman Brothers Band ended a year ago last October. Then my first child (a son) was born in January this year. Talk about being nervous. I thought “Wow, I really hope there's another great gig out there for me to help me support this little guy that we brought here.” I remember this preacher saying that one of peoples’ biggest mistakes is thinking that their best days are behind them. With the crazy way I've been blessed so far in my life, I thought surely it's at least possible that something good would come my way.
Then I got the call, but they told me they were also looking at some other people. While I was in New Orleans for Jazzfest, pictures surfaced of Mike Gordon at TRI with the guys. My wife Jess and I were pretty let down but really happy for Mike. I always say that if its meant to be then it will happen. We tried to let it go and look forward. Then a month or so later they called back! If it's meant to be...
The funny part is that it's my wife Jess who was the real Dead fan. She's totally flipping out right now! It's so storybook. Then later you start to think, “what if they hate it?" We went to the first GD 50 show in Santa Clara. It had a very sacred vibe to it. I was so proud of Trey and all the guys. There was a lot of pressure on Trey though. I saw all the tug of war between the haters and supporters leading up to it. I thought to myself, “get ready for that to be aimed at you now." It’s like having a guillotine blade hanging over your head with a mob that hasn't decided whether or not to yell for your execution. I went through that a little with the ABB, but I wasn't replacing an original member.
L4LM: How does it feel to now have played with two of the most influential, definitive jam bands of all time? Did you choose the genre or did the genre choose you?
OB: It's quite an honor, and one that I can appreciate a lot better now than when I was younger. I had no background with either band when I was coming up. I was into funk, jazz, latin jazz, and jazz rock fusion. And most of the music that I listened to was instrumental. I was SUPER snobby about it too. I didn’t really know anything or care at all about blues, bluegrass, country, and folk music. Col. Bruce Hampton turned me on to all of those things and showed me why they were so great. He really taught me to listen for a person’s life story in their music rather than just their execution on their instrument. I also started paying more attention to lyrics. Now I don’t care if a person has a lot of chops or not. It’s nice but it leaves me flat if they aren’t revealing their true emotions. If Howlin’ Wolf sings something there’s absolutely no shadow of a doubt about what he’s feeling.
I would say that the Deadhead community really embraced us (Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit) from the beginning. Widespread Panic helped us get our first record deal which was on the same label that the ABB used to be on. Phish and Blues Traveler really helped us out so much too. My only time seeing the Grateful Dead was because Blues Traveler got us into the show. Jerry was still alive then. Deadheads that came to see us always said that we reminded them of the Dead. We could never figure it out. Now I know exactly what it is. It wasn’t our playing, or our writing, it was that we had identical philosophies. There were NO rules save one: be musically honest! We have but one commandment which when followed means you could never play anything that was “wrong”. If it was honest, then it was “right”. Period. If anyone is “pathologically anti-authoritarian”, as Jerry was fond of saying, it’s Col. Bruce and myself.
It’s funny because I’m starting to realize that most of my friends that I feel the strongest connection to are way into the Grateful Dead. They are all flipping their lids right now. My buddy Jeep said “I have tears right now. My worlds are colliding.” He’s a big ARU fan and has been a Dead fan for God knows how long. It’s crazy that Jimmy Herring, Warren, and myself have played in both bands. There’s some connection between the ABB and the Dead that is karmically self evident. I so wish I could jam with Duane and Jerry. Maybe in another dimension in the future at some point…
L4LM: What was your process like in preparing for the rehearsals? Did you do any specific studying of Phil Lesh’s approach to the instrument to get into that sort of headspace?
OB: I remember thinking, “how on earth am I going to learn to play like that!” It’s like trying to catch hold of a cloud! It’s simply impossible. Bob, Bill and Mickey have been very insistent (in a supportive way) that I put that out of my mind and just play how the compositions make me feel. If it’s honest then it can’t be wrong, right? Then it just comes down to your intention, which, as you well know, Deadheads can totally feel when it comes to this music. That’s why Mayer is winning them over too. He really loves this music and anyone else who really loves it can tell.
I did study Phil a lot though. I had to just to learn the actual songs. But Phil’s parts changed and evolved through the decades. Also I’ve had to adjust what I’m playing to the slower tempos but I always start with what Phil played on the earliest recordings. After we got into rehearsals Bob told me to listen to the 90’s recordings more because that’s where the songs were going, evolution-wise, when Jerry died. Now that I know the songs better, when I go back and listen to what Phil was doing it kills me so much more. He’s a genius. Analyzing his choices reveals one of the craziest, coolest approaches in the history of the instrument. He is a revolutionary for sure.
But as far as my own process goes - with 400 + songs hanging over your head, the question is where do you start? First I asked my wife Jess what her favorite songs are since she was the real Dead fan in the family. Then I asked Jimmy Herring, because he played with them and also fell deeply in love with the music. Then I reached out to my friend Jeep to find out his favorite tunes. Then I made YouTube playlists, I looked at the Grateful Dead 50 set lists, etc. I spent many hours down in my studio working on it, but it was fun because the compositions are so deep.
L4LM: How did your feelings change once rehearsals started? Was there an instance when reality really hit you?
OB: Reality really hit me before I got to rehearsals - through the compositions themselves - once they get inside your head they stay. But one day at rehearsal we hit this sweet vibe and I could still hear it after rehearsal, even the next day. It’s a sweet headspace to live in. It lingers long after the music has stopped. I realized why their fanbase is so loyal, it’s like yoga for your spirit and mind. But when it really hit was opening night. We knew it was good before, but I think opening night surprised even us. Once the crowd energy was plugged into the equation something totally magical happened. It happened again the next two nights so we know it wasn’t just luck now!
L4LM: As far as energy and mindsets, what changed between rehearsals and the live performances? What was it like to step on stage for the first time with Dead & Co.? How did those feelings develop throughout the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd night?
OB: It’s indescribable. Dead fans are different than any other fans out there. My friend Annabel asked me how it felt. I told her that I only ever had that feeling in church. It’s different but that super strong love vibe is palpable. But I told her it was also so scary, 'cause if the fans don’t like you then you know they’re going to crucify you. She said to me, “some Dead fans can be cruel, judgmental, and self righteous.” I said, “Sounds like good church-going folk to me!" I guess we really are all the same after all. The key difference is that once the energy of the audience is plugged into the equation the spirit of whatever chemistry we have together as a band is amplified. But only if they are pulling for us. The other key thing is that the first night you’re really amped up; you hope the crowd likes it and you usually overshoot the mark from the anticipation of waiting for so long to get there after all the rehearsal. Then the next night, after you’ve listened to the first night, you start to fine tune. You know what you want to do differently. I made so many more mistakes the second night but I played much more like I wanted to overall. The third night is the best of all and it just gets better and better after that!
L4LM: What’s it like to sell out MSG two nights in a row? Can you recall your favorite concert you’ve seen there?
OB: I’ve never seen a concert there before actually. I played there once at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads with the ABB but there were so many bands playing that it couldn’t compare with playing it all night by yourself, sold out and with no opener. There’s simply no way to describe it. I teared up both nights. The confluence of the energies from the band locking up so tight together and the love from the Deadheads was just too strong to contain. I know what it meant to all my Deadhead friends and my wife. I’m so glad that she and some of my dearest friends and family were there to share the experience with me. Playing there surpassed what I had originally envisioned when I chose this as a career. It’s been dream like. Especially because of the love from the fans. I have a whole new family that’s worldwide. Overnight.
L4LM: Joining Dead & Co. may have been the most pivotally defining moment of your career. Do you agree? When did it hit you?
OB: Absolutely, but in great part because I had already been the longest running bassist in the Allman Brothers Band, if that makes any sense. To me the members of those two bands are the Mount Rushmore of this whole jamband scene. For me to have gone straight from one band to the other is pretty mind blowing. I could never have seen it coming. I’m so blessed. I’m telling you honestly people treat me differently now. It’s subtle sometimes and glaring other times! But it’s always there. My wife notices it too. I’m pretty sure I’m never gonna have to buy weed again!
But seriously, it’s truly amazing. And I know it’s gonna hit me in stages. As I started biting into their 400+ song catalogue I read Bill’s book Deal, watched Bob’s documentary The Other One, and watched as many interviews of Jerry on YouTube that I could. Can I just take a second and say thank God for YouTube. It’s made doing Grateful Dead homework SO much easier. I totally immersed myself in it.
L4LM: What was your relationship like with the original GD members, and their music, and how did it develop over the last couple months? John Mayer?
OB: I had played with everyone but Mickey at some point, initially through the ABB. I think I still have a picture of Phil and I onstage together at Roseland Ballroom. I think it was for the One For Woody show. I actually had a band with Bill and Scott Murawski a few years back and that’s where I learned my first 15 or so Dead songs. I have Mike Gordon once again to thank for that. But that was a trio. There was absolutely no possibility of sounding like the GD so I took a totally freewheeling approach to it. I have to amend a lot of things I was doing because someone else is usually already covering the part. I had played with Bobby a number of times over the years, but only with the ABB, so he really didn’t know what I would sound like with the Dead.
I really didn’t know Mayer or his music well, since I quit listening to the radio around 1984! There was one time that I happened to catch his trio with Pino Palladino on bass and Steve Jordan on drums. He can do anything he puts his mind to. Before we headed out to California for a month of rehearsals, Mayer and I started talking to figure out which songs each of us knew up to that point. Through talking to him, I quickly realized how incredibly smart he is. He has taken an unbelievably scientific approach to tackling this enormous catalogue. I can tell you right now that’s his MO across the board. When he falls in love with something, he goes all the way down the rabbit hole and does as thorough homework as he can. I find it really refreshing, especially when it comes to his rhythm guitar playing. He has a true appreciation for the old school when it comes to that. It’s also been great to share this experience with someone else who is coming at it from the outside too. We both fell hard in love with the music much more recently.
Musicians who think they don’t like the Dead should just take the time to learn a few of their songs. China Doll, Stella Blue, Dark Star, Birdsong, & Standing On The Moon have this haunting, floating vibe that I can only relate to Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue album. Help/Slip, Estimated Prophet, Sailor/Saint, Weather Report Suite, and Terrapin Station are these really long & winding compositions that could take a month to have down like classical pieces. Just a few days ago I was on YouTube and ran across what was said to be Bobby’s original demo of Weather Report Suite.
It’s just him on guitar and vocal. I always thought Jerry played that guitar intro. It sounds really complicated. The fact that Bobby wrote that and played it without overdubs, especially at that age is mind blowing. It’s such a long, long piece. It’s a masterpiece. There are little transitions in so many of their songs that use really unconventional but extremely melodic chord changes. It’s so melodic that you don’t even realize how totally insane it is! George Harrison had that gift. So does Gregg. It’s a form of genius.
L4LM: As a bass player, how does your level of freedom compare to when you played with ABB? TTB? ARU?
OB: You know I was just talking about this with Jess. I would have to say the ARU gave me as much freedom as Dead & Co. but I actually use more of my skill set in this band. I use what I learned from classical music, jazz, funk, r&b/soul, blues, bluegrass, country, avant garde, folk, and rock. It’s because of the compositions. Some are much more long and involved than any in the other bands.The breadth and width of their writing might be unmatched. I’ve learned a lot of tunes in my life and nothing has taken me to as many different realms in a single night. It’s so inspiring. You have to do so much work to play this music. It’s been a labor of love. I’ve been working for months on these first 71 songs that I have under my belt. Then I think, I’m still shy of knowing only 1/4 of their catalogue. How cool.
L4LM: Do you see this band continuing beyond this year? Would you stay involved?
OB: Oh yes. And hell yes! If they want me around, I’m definitely coming back!
L4LM: What have you learned since the beginning of all this? Advice to the world?
OB: Long shots happen. I already knew that but this really drives it home. I never had any Grateful Dead or Allman Brothers Band records and I have been asked to join both bands. The music of both bands has changed my life, just by learning the songs, even if I never played with them. You can never predict what great thing is gonna happen in your life. Especially if you mentally stay open to that possibility. Oh, and that Magic is real. It’s called Love. Love is magic and all kinds of impossible things can happen because of it. It can make the most cruel, judgmental, and self righteous Deadhead fall in love with John Mayer.