Over this past weekend, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead played three nights at the Brooklyn Bowl in NYC with Oteil Burbridge. Burbridge was there to sub for the band’s bassist Dave Dreiwitz, who was playing with Ween in Chicago. While the Dead & Company bassist is certainly well-versed in the Grateful Dead repertoire, the style and character of Almost Dead is its own animal. The 2017 version of Grateful Dead music has become redefined by Joe Russo, Marco Benevento, Scott Metzger, Tom Hamilton, and Dreiwitz – for their freedom from the guidelines has provided a platform for absolutely anything to become possible.
The second weekend of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead’s six-night, sold-out residency was certainly highlighted by Burbridge’s presence. The band did not hold back from incorporating out-of-left-field covers and incendiary jams and mash-ups. From the second song of the weekend, JRAD “Let Oteil Sing” Dark Star. The trust was made clear from the beginning, as fans whispered amongst themselves to buckle their seat belts for an exciting weekend of firsts. With Fool’s Paradise coming up in St. Augustine, FL, with both Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (with Jeff Chimenti) and Oteil on the lineup as an artist-at-large, the whispers got louder as the words “Joe Russo’s Almost Dead & Company” spread like wildfire. If this weekend was the test-run for the ride of what’s to come, consider the ticket bought.
Now named one of Bass Player Magazine‘s Top 100 Bass Players of All Time, we caught up with Oteil after this exciting weekend to get his perspective on things.
Live For Live Music: You’ve become a student of Grateful Dead music. What did you know about Joe Russo’s Almost Dead before heading into the weekend? Had you seen them play before?
Oteil Burbridge: I’d seen them play a couple of times. Jam Cruise was when I got to see them up close and really zero in on what they were doing. Plus I knew most of the songs by then and could really tell what set them apart better than before. [John] Mayer and I had talked about how much we both dug them. It was nice to see the fans really embrace a band doing almost all GD music but not really trying to copy their sound. Initially I felt very hesitant to put my own stamp on this music. Of course, if you really have found your voice, then it’s impossible not to anyway – but it was a process getting to the place of being uninhibited about it. JRAD is a much more high energy show too, I think the fans really love that. It was something that I heard over and over again from the fans.
L4LM: How would you describe their approach to the Grateful Dead canon? Obviously, they take things a step further than just playing the songs–there are unexpected surprises, twists, and turns, at least for the fans (like when Marco turned “Black Throated Wind” into “Royals,” etc.) Were you aware of song changes, mash-ups, unrelated song covers, ahead of time, or does the band arrive at them organically? How did having you there affect the way they approached things? It was clear from the audience that they were all having a blast jamming with you.
OB: I actually didn’t recognize a lot of the mash ups. I could only tell it was happening because of the fan reaction. I did recognize when Marco went into “Fame” by Bowie but I think I was quoting “Skin Tight” by the Ohio Players at the same time. Or maybe it was Parliament Funkadelic. Talk about crazy three way mash ups! The whole point is that if it’s unexpected to the band, then it’s gotta be unexpected to the audience. Their whole thing is to not pre-plan. Even planned things are apt to veer off course at any moment. You would have to ask the other guys in the band how it was different with me in the mix. I can’t be very objective about that kind of thing.
L4LM: I’d imagine that playing with JRAD is much like taking pop quiz—except there are thousands of eyes on you and you’re plugged into an amplifier. You know the material, but this tests how you apply it and adapt it in real time. Describe this type of musical experience.
OB: It’s impossible to describe but I’ll try. First of all, you have to be out of your mind to keep putting yourself under that kind of pressure. It’s much safer to play only what’s written down. On top of that, if you’re doing it right you tend to feel like you’re onstage with no clothes on. And it’s really cold….. Very few people would enjoy that feeling. But all of this is Col. Bruce [Hampton] 101 so it’s not something new to me. It does finally explain to me why Dead Heads were the biggest Col. Bruce fans and why they adopted us into this scene. It’s that sense of earth without borders.
L4LM: Overall, how did playing with JRAD compare to playing with Dead & Company?
OB: Well the tempos are a lot faster! No but seriously, you can’t really compare things like that. How does BBQ chicken compare with honey chicken? One’s BBQ and the other is honey. I like chicken all kinds of ways.
L4LM: How did you feel about playing an Allman Brothers cover in the midst of all the Dead music? Was it your call to work that in? Had you ever thought about how Allmans and Dead songs might mix together while working with Dead & Co?
OB: Joe put that one on the list, not me. Normally I don’t have any different feeling about playing an ABB cover in the set than any other cover really. We do so many covers that are not GD anyway. They’re usually related too. Doing “The Weight” for instance wasn’t that different because the ABB covered that regularly too. Now, doing “Born To Run” in a Grateful Dead set, THAT was a trip! But that particular night when we started “Liz Reed” reminded me that I was usually at the Beacon with the ABB during this exact time frame. It was hard not to cry for a minute there. Especially with Butch Trucks‘ recent death. I haven’t really thought about doing any ABB tunes with Dead & Co. I sometimes quote “Blue Sky” in “Franklin’s Tower” but beyond that it’s not something that I have asked them to do.
L4LM: At the JRAD shows, you went back and forth between your 4- and 6-string basses. How did you/how do you usually decide when to play the four string bass versus the six string?
OB: I would play my 6 string all the time but I know Joe really loves old 4 strings. That was HIS bass I was playing. People were asking me on social media why I was playing Dreiwitz’s bass. I wasn’t, I was playing Joe’s bass. In the future, I’ll probably be doing it on 6 string a lot more. There are so many things I am working hard on in this music and it’s all on 6 string. The music of the Grateful Dead and where I want to take it personally is going to be a lifelong pursuit. That means 6 string.
L4LM: You’re used to playing in two drummer bands with the Allmans and now Dead & Co. Did the music feel any different performing it with only Joe Russo?
OB: Honestly I don’t think about it. Comparison destroys contentment. I let go of all preconceptions and just try to respond to the moment. It always feels different when you’re playing with different people. It would have felt just as different if Joe had another drummer.
L4LM: Given all your recent involvement with several of its different facets, what’s your perspective on the contemporary moment of the Dead Head culture?
OB: It’s really thriving. This music is bigger than the band if you know what I mean. It’s the same with the ABB. It’s really beautiful that all the original members are intentionally passing it on to the next generations’ musicians. It’s such a thrill for all of us younger guys to get to play with them. My buddy Jason Crosby does a lot of stuff with Phil [Lesh]. He was in my solo band The Peacemakers forever ago before I knew any of this music. It’s such a trip to play Grateful Dead music with him now all these years later! I know he feels just as fortunate as I do to be included in this family. I think he knew a lot more Dead tunes than I did though!
L4LM: You were just named one of the top 100 bass players by Bass Player Magazine. What an honor! Any words of wisdom to the young musicians following their dreams?
OB: I still can’t believe it. Honestly I could name 20 players that should replace me. There’s not anyone under 60 years old that would be on my list other than Victor Wooten. He is a true innovator. When you do something that has never been done before, and that in turn changes the way a large number of people approach the instrument, then you get to be on my list if you’re under 60.
Advice? Don’t give a crap about what you think other people think about you. You don’t know what they really think about you anyway. If you are brave enough to be yourself then you are automatically giving people something that they can’t get anywhere else. I think what Jim Carrey said at a commencement address was dead on. He said that his father failed at doing a job that he hated and it taught him that since he might fail anyway he was going to take the chance at failing doing something he loved.
L4LM: We’re psyched to see you later this month as an artist-at-large at Fool’s Paradise, with Lettuce, JRAD (with Jeff Chimenti), and your late-night “Infinity Jam” with Eric Krasno. What are you most looking forward to?
OB: I’m most looking forward to not being so damn cold, (I live in Florida now) another day upright and healthy, and the chance to jam with my friends. As far as future collaborations, I did hear the name Joe Russo’s Almost Dead & Company floated out there by a fan last weekend…….
Join Lettuce, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (with Jeff Chimenti), The Motet, The Floozies, Manic Science (Manic Focus x Break Science), The Main Squeeze, Organ Freeman, with Oteil Burbridge and Antwaun Stanley as artists-at-large at Fool’s Paradise next weekend, March 31 & April 1 in St. Augustine, FL. More information can be found here!