Halloween may have fallen on a Tuesday this year, but it felt like Saturday night inside Ardmore Music Hall when Oteil Burbridge—in Egyptian pharaoh’s headdress—took the stage alongside his hand-picked cast of groove-makers amid roars from the sold-out crowd. It was the tour opener for Oteil & his Friends—guitarists Eric Krasno and John Kadlecik, legendary keyboardist Melvin Seals, drummer Jay Lane, percussionist Weedie Braimah, plus soul-stirring vocalist, Alfreda Gerald—and the show contained all the playful hallmarks of a “new” band coming together to jam on one of the most festive nights of the year.
Fresh off the release of Oteil’s solo LP Water In The Desert, the show began with that record’s titular opening track: a soulful waltz that slowly built and built until Alfreda Gerald formally introduced herself to the crowd with a ferocious vocal crescendo. Gerald was the only member of this supergroup to have performed on Water In The Desert, and the band soon ditched the originals in favor of a slew of funked-up covers, from Motown to Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and some more Dead.
The group seemed to find its legs on a bombastic cover of Dylan’s “Serve Somebody,” with Gerard whipping the crowd into a frenzy on the refrain. It was the kind of loose atmosphere you find in open jam sessions where lead breaks are decided the moment before they happen and eye contact is the vital glue that holds it all together. That’s not to say there was anything sloppy about the performance—Oteil and Lane made sure of that. But a certain raw energy pervaded, even in the slower tunes.
Gerald was a vocal force to be reckoned with throughout, but shared first-set singing duties with Kadlecik on “Run For The Roses,” Krasno on his own tune “Unconditional Love,” and Oteil on a heartfelt “If I Had The World To Give” and typically punchy “Deep Ellum Blues.”
If the first set was characterized by a sense of playful uncertainty among the musicians on stage, that uncertainty transferred to the audience by set two, with the band taking their improvisations to some exploratory places.
The set-opening “Tangled Up In Blue” marked the longest jam of the night, briefly venturing into Type II territory as Kadlecik steered the ship toward a melancholy space. That psychedelic mood didn’t last though, and the party swiftly resumed with the opening bassline on The Meters’ “Just Kissed My Baby.” It was at some point during the ensuing 10 minutes, as Lane created a rhythmic pocket as deep as the deepest Pacific trenches and Oteil filled in the space with his signature harmonic flurries, that I wondered if I had ever heard anything so funky.
With a tip of the pharaoh’s cap to Mr. Seals, Oteil and his friends returned to the Jerry Garcia Band catalog with the apt-for-Halloween “Cats Under The Stars” featuring Kadlecik on lead vocals and a full-band “Cissy Strut” tease.
More full-band costuming ensued with Dead covers “Bertha” and “So Many Roads,” before Gerald donned her musical costume. Proclaiming she was Janis Joplin for Halloween this year, Gerald belted out her take on “Piece Of My Heart” bringing a fiery conclusion to the second set.
An artist’s side projects can say a lot about the way he or she likes to spend their musical free time. I doubt Oteil stresses much over playing Dead and Company gigs in sold-out arenas, but it’s perhaps telling that the well-traveled bassist used the two weeks leading up to Dead and Co.’s Fall 2017 tour to share his blossoming love for the Grateful Dead with smaller, more intimate audiences.
As we “Let Oteil Sing” on the “Ripple” encore, we saw an artist breathing new life into an old song—and the music, in real time, sparking new life within the artist.