By: Doug Collette
For: State of Mind Music
Is there a more ebullient modest musician on the planet than Oteil Burbridge? When he was reminded that this year is his tenth anniversary with The Allman Brothers Band, he chortled and almost never stopped throughout the conversation…at least when he discussed his role in the mythic southern band.
Burbridge became solemn and soulful in his discussion to become a professional musician rather than take a working job. Yet every string of conversation led back to passion for music and warmth for his comrades, which are the most notable virtues he displays in whatever musical context he finds himself.
Burbridge invariably becomes a lynchpin of the proceedings at hand. His combustible exchanges with Jimmy Herring are highlights of the all-too-infrequent Aquarium Rescue Unit gigs these days. Burbridge unabashedly relishes his spotlights with the Allman Brothers Band, whether it’s a bass solo (scat or not), a turn on the drums (as happened at The Beacon this past March), or the lead vocal turn where he lends due passion to Grateful Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower” or the more recent takes on Derek & The Dominos’ “AnyDay.”
Then, of course, there’s Burbridge’s benign leadership of the Peacemakers. Recent appearances with the band find him doing the bulk of the singing, while never lessening the prominence of his main axe. Given the diversity of teases and themes he is inclined to include in his bass playing, he is no doubt the mastermind behind the provocative setlist, replete with Hendrix tunes.
It was such a joy to speak with him on the phone. It almost boggles the mind to think what a delight it must be to have him as a bandmate and co-road warrior.
Doug Collette: I was reading something about you and the Allman Brothers the other day and I noticed that you actually joined the band in 1997. You’ve got a ten-year anniversary with them coming up.
Oteil Burbridge: I know. It’s amazing isn’t it?
DC: How does that feel?
OB: God, I don’t know. It’s scary that a decade went by that fast. (laughter)
DC: Yeah. I know how you feel when it comes to that. Did you imagine that you would be with the Allmans that long when you first joined them back in ’97?
OB: Oh man, honestly, I didn’t think it was going to last six months. (laughter)
DC: Is that right? And why is that?
OB: I guess the band was just in such a volatile place, but you can never tell really. I mean honestly I don’t know if I had any…What’s the right word? I guess I hoped that it would last, but you can never tell, especially in the music business. The music business is so unpredictable. Certainly the Allman Brothers were a little more unpredictable. (laughter)
DC: Well yeah, and when you joined the band that seemed to be the first step in the Allmans really starting to stabilize over the next few years.
OB: Yeah, because I really think that I’m probably, aside from the original incarnation of the band, I am probably one of the luckiest band members to have passed through. You know, if you think about all of the different guys that have played in the Allman Brothers. And it really started to stabilize right when I got into the band. It was probably during the most sane period in the band’s history. Not because of me but just the timing of it.
DC: Well, I don’t know. Give yourself a little credit there. You seem to really enjoy being on stage for its own sake, but also when I watch you play with the Allmans, you really have a good time interacting with the other guys in the band. I often see you turn around and get eye contact with Butch and really get grooving. There is a certain chemistry that you and Derek seem to have too, that’s very unique. Had you played with Derek much before you both ended up playing together in the Allman Brothers Band?
OB: Oh, only since he was eleven. (laughter)
DC: Yeah, that’s what I figured. I didn’t know the exact timeline but I wanted to be sure of that because there seemed to be something very unique about the chemistry between you two.
OB: Well, we’ve got a lot of history together, and I think a lot of that is we always played primarily for the joy of it.
DC. Yes, and it shows.
OB: And I can’t say that I don’t do it for the money because that is how I make my living. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t do it for the money, because I have to.
DC: Sure, sure.
OB: But at the same time, that was never my original motivation and continues not to be my motivation. My core motivation is to play for the joy of it. When you are playing this kind of music you can’t… What’s the point? I don’t think we all went through all that we went through to become full-time musicians to dread it. We could avoid the dread that we would have felt of a 9-to-5 or doing anything that we couldn’t have really put our hearts into and enjoyed. Every band that I have played in I have had that kind of joy. It’s supposed to be like that or you are supposed to quit or change what you are doing.
DC: Well, yeah. That’s why the phrase is “play music,” and “play” connotes joy and freedom.
DC: It’s interesting that you talk about it in that sense, too, because other musicians I have spoken with invariably mention that while it’s a great feeling to be onstage, a lot of what comes with being a professional musician is either boring or, as you use the word, dreadful, A lot of the traveling sometimes gets you down, but people invariably say that when it comes time to get onstage it’s a whole different life and it makes everything else worth while.
OB: Well it’s the payoff. I mean you play for what, two hours? And I guess the music scene that we are in people play longer. A lot of bands just do an hour set and that’s it, but we could play anywhere from two to four hours in the course of twenty-four hours. But, I mean, that’s life on Earth. You can’t have peaches and cream all of the time.
DC: No. Well, you wouldn’t be able to enjoy the sweet parts of it. It would either be a little sour or just a little not tasty at all, I suppose.
OB: No, you’ve got to take the ups and downs, and when it’s all said and done I would rather be on the road than in traffic twice a day. That would just undo me.
DC: Let me ask you a couple of things about playing with the Allmans over the years and specifically the runs you guys do with the Beacon Theater. You touched upon the various stages that the band has gone through and it was a couple years, maybe three after you joined the Allmans that Derek came in. What kind of change did that have on the band?
OB: Well, it’s so hard to answer a question like that because a lot of these things are so subjective. It’s like talking about flavors. Since I’ve joined the band, guitar players have changed, but I guess for me personally it was nice to see because I go back with Derek so long. And I think it’s just a relief when we are not onstage. You know? (laughter)
DC: Yeah. I can imagine. His temperament just seems to be so good-natured and low key that it must be a pleasure to be offstage and onstage.
OB: Yeah definitely, and at one point Jimmy and Derek were in the band and that was a trip because I really felt like there was a…I don’t know how to put this. People would always ask me about the Allman Brothers and I always said they were going to do this or going to do that and they would say, “How can you say ‘they’ when you are in the band?” And I said, “Well, the Allman Brothers to me is the original band with Berry and Duane, and so, I don’t feel like I’m a part of that. You know what I mean? I was five years old when that happened. And I still kind of looked at them like, damn! You know? (laughter) And when Derek and Jimmy were in the band, now it’s like almost half of the band was out of my past.
DC: That must have been a real trip when that happened.
OB: It was really something. Me and Jimmy and Derek have a history. It’s like that whole situation was very free. It could go anywhere.
DC: Oh, absolutely.
OB: It could go completely wrong. And the more wrong it was, that was right. We had to be careful that we wouldn’t go too far out there. (Laughter)
DC: I suppose you are right, except that I hear people talk about seeing that tour and that lineup and even having read interviews with Jimmy and Derek. It’s almost like the band had a collective epiphany that summer because you were doing things much more freely. Jimmy was in a mix that prompted you guys to go further afield than you guys had been doing the last few years, and people seemed to love that.
OB: Well, you’ve got to realize that was the first time the band had played without Dickey. Dickey was the band leader at that point even though on paper it was a democracy.
OB: He really kind of ruled it. But I think that there was just that sense of freedom because of that was kind of an end of an era. With that came some giddiness and, you know, me and Jimmy and Derek.
DC: You guys must have been like kids on a playground whooping it up.
OB: We were already halfway off in the deep end anyway from the moment we started. (laughter) We were just waiting to kamikaze ourselves and all we needed was half of an excuse. Just seeing each other… I’d look over at Jimmy and he’d laugh at anything. So we had to kind of kind of reign it in a little bit there.
DC: How did the other guys, the older guys so to speak, look at that? Were they like, “What are you guys doing?” or were they like, “Wow, this is a lot of fun”?
OB: I’ll put it this way: some of them loved it and some of them freaked out. (laughter)
DC: That’s fair enough. I won’t ask you to name names.
OB: I think you could probably figure it out.
DC: Yeah. When there were thoughts about having Derek join the band, did everybody talk about that together? Did somebody ask you specifically what you thought of the idea, or did just one or two people in the group at the time talk to Derek and say, “We’d like you to join. What do you think?”
OB: I don’t remember exactly how it went down, but oh man, it was such a dark time for the band. Granted, you have to realize things have been so much crazier before I ever got in the band. So what I considered completely over the line, they might think it wasn’t so bad. You know what I mean?
DC: Yeah I can see that.
OB: I was just bewildered. I was like, “Well, I guess this is rock and roll.” It was a different thing from what I was used to. I came from a, I guess more jazz background. I had no frame of reference for this type of thing that I was doing. Eventually it got so bad that everyone was like…I know for a couple of years I was like, “What’s going on?” I’m sure that a couple of people asked me about what I thought about Derek and I was like, “Yeah, I mean what are you talking about?” He is just the best slide player on Earth; there is no question about it. Nobody can touch him, period. You know? Of course, I was biased and everybody knew I was bias. So, I thought that they knew that when they asked me. But, I didn’t have any vote in the situation. I think the only thing that anybody was ever worried about was that they didn’t want it to be seen as a given because he was so young. But I was like, you can’t listen to music with your eyes, so it doesn’t matter if he is ten. The guy sounds like he is 190 and he did when he was eleven. You know? None of that matters.
DC: Yeah, it really doesn’t.
OB: I thought it was a no-brainer and it proved to be even better than we thought.
DC: Oh really?
OB: Well yeah, because Derek is constantly growing. Think about how old he was when he joined. I don’t think that he was even twenty yet.
DC: I think that he had just turned twenty because it was the spring that he had joined the band before he actually went on tour with the Allmans that I saw him for the first time. And I was just absolutely flabbergasted by what he did for three hours that night. And he was a kid; he was younger than he is now so he had even more of a baby face. And it was like he was reinventing a means of playing electric guitar. The only guitar player that I have seen that has made me laugh out loud repeatedly was Jeff Beck, and then I saw Derek that night and I knew I had to reconsider my favorite guitar players. I’ve seen him a few times since then and the impression has just become more and more reaffirmed.
OB: Yeah, because he has grown so much.
DC: He has.
OB: Every year. It just got better and better. It has to have exceeded everybody’s expectations. I don’t think any of us could have realized how good it was going to be.
DC: That’s great. Let me ask you something else about the evolution of the group over the last few years. Was it a surprise to you in any way when it was announced that Warren Haynes was going to come back and play with the Allmans for the Beacon run in 2001?
OB: It wasn’t a surprise for me when it was announced because I knew about it ahead of time. (laughter)
DC: Right. Well, yeah.
OB: In this band, the only thing that I have been in the Allman Brothers is surprised. (laughter) I mean, I’ve been in the band for ten years. How’s that for a surprise?
DC: That’s a pretty good benchmark.
OB: I was relieved, though. We really didn’t know what was going to happen. But it’s par for the course of the Allman Brothers: you never know what is going to happen. You just have to take it one day at a time. So when I found that out, I was really relieved because I thought… well with having a totally new chemistry up front—me, Jimmy and Derek. That had to be really scary for the original guys.
DC: Well, I suppose it was to an extent.
OB: And so to have one come back, I knew that would really put them at ease and kind of bridge that gap between Derek and I and the original guys.
DC: And that really seems to be the role he has played since then, to be kind of a catalyst and a liaison between the three original members and Mark and you guys who have brought the fresh blood into the band. Have you really noticed and felt the band’s chemistry evolving and sharpening over the last five years?
OB: Oh, definitely. I felt last year was the best musically since I have joined the band and certainly the most fun I have had in the band, from the second night at the Beacon last year through the end of the year. I think a lot of it was, you know, things come with time.
OB: It’s hard when you keep changing members, even though the other people aren’t starting from scratch. But in a way they are. You put a new flavor. It’s just like if you are making this dish and you have made the dish the same way for the last twenty years and then all of a sudden you throw a new spice in there. It’s going to change it and it’s going to affect all of the other flavors. It’s not like starting completely from scratch, but there is a starting over that happens. We’ve had a few years with these same guys and you get everybody clicking. Last year was just amazing. It was like a reward after all of these years of being in that band.
DC: That’s terrific. It must be really gratifying.
OB: Well, it sure was fun.
DC: A friend of mine and I went to see you two successive nights at the end of August. You played in New Hampshire one night and then at the Tweeter Center in Massachusetts the next night. The two shows were remarkably different, but they were both terrific in their own way. This buddy of mine said to me while we were driving home, “You know, that’s the best I’ve seen these guys maybe ever.” And he has been going to see the Allman Brothers in various incarnations since the mid-to-late Nineties. I saw the original band. I saw them with Lamar, Chuck, and then I saw them with Woody and Warren, and then I went to the Beacon for the first time in 2003 and I was blown away. Every year these people have gotten tighter and yet more inventive. This last summer was just: “How do these guys keep coming up with these ideas?” It’s the chemistry and the magic of the chemistry I guess that does it.
OB: Well, and it takes time, too. There’s a curve with things. It’s like any kind of growth with a person. They get a certain period of time that’s like a golden period, where they are blooming and everything is perfect. The light is hitting it and everything is just right. That’s the time. You know?
OB: And I feel like last year and hopefully this year too was it, the time that the flower is finally bloomed and full.