From his first days with Colonel Bruce Hampton’s Aquarium Rescue Unit and then the Allman Brothers Band to his current Grateful Dead-centric Oteil & Friends shows with John Kadlecik and others, Oteil Burbridge has been central to what we’ve come to know as jam band music—genuine improvisational rock.
Which makes it no surprise that he’s the headliner of the upcoming (April 5-8) Skull and Roses Festival at Ventura Fairgrounds. After all, Skull and Roses was created to showcase all the various ways Grateful Dead music can be played, and Oteil’s bass playing is as far from the traditional roots and time keeping of routine bass playing as that of a certain Grateful Dead bassist. Burbridge, too, operates at a very high level of creativity, which seems to suit Deadheads just fine. So in celebration of the show, we asked Oteil a few questions.
What’s your first musical memory?
My first snare drum at 5 years old. And probably the sound of Jazz. My dad was a music freak. It was his religion.
How did you come to play an instrument? What or who moved you.
Music was ubiquitous in my house. Rhythm has always moved me. I was beating on oatmeal boxes and plastic bowls with wooden spoons at 4 years old. My parents quickly channeled that energy.
What’s your first memory of hearing (or hearing about) the Grateful Dead?
In high school I became aware that all the hippies seemed to be attached to this one band. I always had an affinity for hippies since grade school. I grew up with a fair amount of their kids. Monica Powell, an old school mate of mine, knew that I was really into music and she gave me a bunch of their records in an effort to enlighten me.
How did you come to work with ARU?
I met Col. Bruce through the drummer Jeff Sipe (Apt. Q258). Meeting Bruce was the first time I met an actual extra terrestrial. I started following him pretty much immediately after he guessed my birthday and was only three MINUTES off. Aug 24th at 1:57 am. He guessed 2am….. I saw him do many more amazing things than that over the following years.
What impact did ARU have on your playing?
Col. Bruce schooled me on American folk music. Specifically Delta Blues, Bluegrass and I would also include some outer space music like Sun Ra. It probably would have taken me a lot longer to become a fan of other extraterrestrials like James Blood Ulmer if it wasn’t for Bruce.
How did you come to work with the Allmans?
Butch Trucks called me one day in 1996 about a side project that he was doing with Jimmy Herring and Derek Trucks called Frogwings. When Warren Haynes and Allen Woody left the band, they called me to join.
In your opinion, who’s your biggest influence as a bass player?
I’m the product of an amalgamation. And I’m as much influenced by drummers, from Elvin Jones to James Gadson, as I am bassists. My biggest bass influences (early on) were Verdine White, Bootsy Collins, Alphonso Johnson, Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke. I’m pretty sure Alphonso played with Bob Weir at one point. He’s a west coast guy too.
To be honest, when I first really heard about you, you were with the Allmans and I assumed you were a fairly straight-ahead blues bass player. A guy can be wrong, though… clearly you’re not. So how did you get where you’ve gotten?
The grace of God and the fact that fortune indeed favors the bold.
When did you start moving into Dead Land? Was it Dead & Co., or something else? BK3?
Definitely with BK3. I have Mike Gordon to thank for that. He told me that he was sure it was something that I should experience this life. He was so right.
How did you come to join Dead & Co.? Who called you?
It was Matt Busch, Bob Weir’s personal manager, that first called me. He told me that Bob wanted to get ahold of me. I had played with both Bob and Phil Lesh in the Allman Brothers Band and with Bill in BK3. Mickey was the only one I hadn’t played with yet.
What’s your favorite Dead song?
That’s impossible to choose. I couldn’t choose my favorite ballad! I think if we played the entire Terrapin Suite it would be my favorite for a while. I got to do it once with JRAD. Just learning it was so much fun. But honestly I have about 25 favorites at any given time.
Deadheads have embraced you in a big, big way. What’s that like?
It’s an incredible relief, a little scary, and extremely humbling at different times!
Have you played at Ventura Fairgrounds before? Have you heard anything about the Dead shows there back in the ‘80s?
I have not played there before. I’ve heard about that venue but I can’t recall any specific stories. I learn more Grateful Dead history literally every day. I’ll have to call Steve Parish and ask him what memories that venue triggers before I get there!
Bruce Hornsby remarked that Dead songs had become “hymns,” kind of a basic part of the American songbook. Do you agree?
One hundred percent. I used to study the “Real Book” which is a book of jazz standards. To me, the Grateful Dead catalogue is very similar to that. It’s canonical. I’m proud to be a part of the lineage and excited to learn all the songs that I still don’t know! It’s some of the best homework ever.