By: Jeff SPevak
For: The Democrat and Chronicle
OK, it looks as though John Mayer’s not gonna call, despite the fact that I really want to talk to him about this breakup with Jennifer Aniston that I’ve been reading about. And discuss the photos of him in a hot tub with cool-looking women — no Jennifer! — that I discovered while researching him on the Internet. Maybe I could be of help, but I have a story to write here….
Thankfully, Oteil Burbridge, bassist with the Allman Brothers Band, called.
As most Allman enthusiasts know, it is a calmer band that comes to the Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center on Friday. Perhaps it was the 2000 coup of founding member Dickey Betts, or the band’s truce on crazy marriages (Gregg Allman and Cher!), drugs (just about everyone) and deaths (four). You’d think there’d be a ban on motorcycles after the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley in such accidents, but both Gregg Allman and Burbridge remain bikers. “Guess I’ll have to put together my bucket list,” Burbridge muses.
“The biggest change for the band, since Dickey left, is increased communication between band members,” Burbridge says. “Two years ago, it was a breakthrough. You can tell. The last two years, any night we’re playing, it’s way more intense. When you’re playing improvisational music, how you feel about the guy next to you, if you want to kill him, makes it hard to communicate.”
When Burbridge became an Allman in 1997, following the death of Allen Woody, Betts traveled on one tour bus, the drummers on a second — “They wanted a nonsmoking bus, and they didn’t want the drama” — while Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes and Burbridge were in a third bus. “That’s just a lot of separation, basically,” Burbridge says. “We didn’t see each other until we were onstage. Out of 24 hours, you see each other for 2½, and that’s it. We’d be two, three, four songs into it before the first time I got to say hello to Dickey.”
There was no particular epiphany, just maturity.
“I’m just trying to keep it simple, you know?” Burbridge says. “I’m at such a much-better point in my life. I’m gonna be 44 in a couple of days, and I think a lot more about how you spend your time. I’ve seen a lot of musicians lose their kids, health, relationships, life. They didn’t know what to do with all this free time on the road. Drugs, addictions, as I did in the past, too. It’s all about choosing life instead of death. It’s a tricky thing, being a human. All these clichés are true, but ‘Youth is wasted on the young’ is the truest.”
Burbridge is the last addition to the band. Betts’ ouster opened the door for Derek Trucks, who teams with Warren Haynes on guitar, infusing a new spirit that seems to have not only kept the band alive but also thriving.
It’s important that the music remain a learning experience. One of the most interesting influences on these later Allmans (Derek Trucks and Jimmy Herring, who was a temporary replacement for Betts, also calls him a mentor) is the Southern cosmic philosopher-poet and singer/songwriter Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.).
Burbridge played with Hampton from 1988 through the mid-’90s in an indefinable — but we’ll try — rock and R&B and funk and avant-garde groove outfit called the Aquarium Rescue Unit.
“He taught me Delta blues, bluegrass, a lot of music that is most incorrectly labeled avant-garde,” Burbridge says. “Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman are not avant-garde. That’s just their story.”
And getting to the musician’s story is the point.
“He really showed me how to listen for a person’s story in their music,” Burbridge says of Hampton. “I spent so many years trying to master the instrument and technique, jazz harmony and all that stuff, that when I listened to music, I missed a lot of people’s stories.
“It informs the song when you know that.”
OK, so how does it work on an Allmans classic like “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed?” That one was written by Betts, and is famously known as having been influenced by Miles Davis — the Allmans in the early days were heavy jazz freaks — and by a tombstone epitaph that Betts spotted while visiting a cemetery.
“Actually I got the story from Dickey about how he wrote the song,” Burbridge says, his voice breaking into a conspiratorial laugh, “and I can’t tell it. I can say this: It’s much more attached to emotions and love. But the rest of what’s behind it, I’ll never tell in a million years.”
Is the secret of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” better than John Mayer in a hot tub?
“Way better,” Burbridge says. “He hasn’t lived long enough to have done anything nearly that interesting.”