Beloved bassist Oteil Burbridge has been a busy man of late. Fans could catch him all over town at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and ever since then he’s been putting his time in with the newest Grateful iteration, Dead & Company. Playing alongside three of the band’s legendary members, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, is no easy feat, let alone musicians like Jeff Chimenti and John Mayer getting into the mix.
When we last spoke to Burbridge, he was just a few shows into the band’s debut fall tour. With some more Grateful Dead experience under his belt, including some fun New Year’s shows, a few late night TV performances, and this week’s performance at The Fillmore in San Francisco, CA, we caught up with the esteemed bassist to talk all things Dead & Company.
Read on for our exclusive chat with the one and only Oteil Burbridge.
L4LM: The last time we spoke, you were just a few dates into your tour. What was it like bringing such an iconic catalogue to venues across the country last year?
OB: The catalogue is the most fun thing about this band. The breadth and depth of it is so huge. Stadiums are gonna be a new experience for me too. I’ve never wanted to see a band at a stadium. I come from a jazz background more than a rock one. I’ve only seen one stadium show in my life and it was GD 50 at Santa Clara. It’s gonna be a trip doing those. With this music, those venues can actually sound good too, because the dynamic range is so drastic. We can play quietly for so long that you can really hear things a lot better than if we are just blasting at full volume every song.
L4LM: The Fillmore is such an important venue in the Grateful Dead’s, and rock and roll’s, history. What was it like performing there?
OB: Knowing the history of the Fillmore and being older made playing there with Dead & Co pretty mind blowing. When I got there, there was a picture in the dressing room and Bob looked like he hadn’t turned 20 yet. Bill Graham looked so young in it too. It stops you in your tracks. I found the poster of when I played there with Aquarium Rescue Unit opening for Bruce Hornsby and headlining with Vida Blue.
This week on: “You Tell Me!”, did Oteil enjoy playing a free show, for the hometown San Francisco fans, at the Fillmore, with three original members of the Grateful Dead???
Can’t wait to put up the poster from that show at my house!
L4LM: So how excited are you for Dead & Company’s summer tour?
OB: Excited like you can’t imagine. Last year was so much fun but I can tell the band is in a new place this year. Having the support from the fans really frees you to not think so much and just be responsive to the moment. In rehearsals we’re hitting some grooves and jams that are going in some beautiful directions. It’s so nice when everyone has agreed to take side roads and get lost together. There’s some of that on tape from the Fillmore show we just did. Directions we’ve never gone before. You can’t beat that.
L4LM: Now that the band has spent some time together, is the rehearsal process different than it was during the initial practices?
OB: Not really. It can be really slow sometimes. Sometimes I worry that it’s a little hard for the original guys to get too excited about John and I always having to play catch up. But then again I’m sure the songs feel different with John and I, so that probably mitigates some of the possible boredom. It’s a process of fine tuning. I think we have more confidence now but the focus is always on how we can make the show better. When you a have a group with as much collective experience as these musicians, that can be an incredibly fun process too.
L4LM: Any chance you can fill us in on any new songs Dead & Company might debut?
OB: Now that would really take the fun out off all the hard work we’re doing to surprise you guys wouldn’t it? We busted out a few new ones at the Fillmore. “Queen Jane,” “Days Between.” Jesus that song is amazing. We’ve got more coming too!
L4LM: It must have been intense to learn dozens of songs from the Grateful Dead catalog. Which tunes came the most naturally and which were more of a challenge?
OB: The bluegrassy, blues and country ones are probably the easiest, but then you never know because the vast majority of GD songs have some little twist in there to catch you. You can’t be bored playing this music. As soon as you think you have it down, something will trip you up. I take them one at a time. Each song hits you on multiple levels as far as the content of the lyrics and the mixture of musical styles. I spend so much more time reading the lyrics in the Teleprompter now that I know the music part a little better and it really changes the way I play it. My awareness of the song grows over time. The process is like a vine growing. That also makes it less intimidating.
L4LM: One of the clips that got passed around a lot was your bass solo in “Eyes Of The World” at MSG. Was that an “oh my god” moment? Did you have a lot of those on tour?
OB: Yes that was nice. A relief. It gives you the confidence to not worry. The real objective for me as a bassist is to help the whole band have those moments collectively. Last night at the Fillmore was no exception. We definitely had some of those moments! The history of that place had much more of an impact on me now that I am older. I’ll never forget that show for the rest of my life. I’m SO glad that show is on tape.
L4LM: You guys seemed like you were having a blast on the two late night shows of 2016. What were those experiences like?
OB: TV is always a challenge for bands like Dead & Co and the Allman Brothers Band cause you have to cut everything so short. But we got to play some longer songs on the Kimmel Show because it was outdoors and we did a couple that were not shown on TV. I know our fans were happy about that!
L4LM: Are you looking forward to Bonnaroo? Any chance we’ll see you join forces with some friends at the festival?
OB: I’m not sure what our schedule is there yet. Sometimes we play and then split immediately. If I’m able to I always like to see other groups and sit in too. I really wanna go to the stand up comedy stage!
L4LM: The Dead & Company New Year’s show was out of this world! What was the planning like for that? Did you get to smoke any of the giant joint?
OB: Haha, there was no weed in that joint! I don’t think….. It was such an amazing night for me. Planning shows like that is always so much fun. I’m not part of a lot of big production decisions like giant flying joints but musically and otherwise this band is about creating memorable events in people’s lives. There are so many things that are considered and tossed around toward that end.
L4LM: Bob Weir recently spoke about a dream he had, where he saw you with white hair playing in Dead & Company long after he was gone. Are you planning to fulfill his prophecy?
OB: You know my lot in life seems to have been primarily to help classic rockers keep their flames fed, stoked and oxygenated. And while I’m honored that Bob, Bill and Mickey feel that way, I don’t like to talk or think about when they have passed on. It is so amazing when you have nights like the Fillmore and people who saw the Dead there back in the old days tell you how much they loved your show. To be a part of that history is simply overwhelming. I don’t know how else to put it. I really freaked out that night. In a good way.
But I guarantee you I will be playing this music for the rest of my life. Plus I still have so many tunes to learn. It’s possible that it’s gonna take me the rest of my life! The one thing that I will say about life after the original members have passed on is thank God for the Chimentis, Kimocks, and Kadleciks out there to help the future generations get it just right. Their insights concerning this music have been a huge help to me. They are true apostles of this music. They have they’re own things too to be sure. But I don’t know who knows this music any more thoroughly than them.
L4LM: John Mayer has gotten some media attention for his “conversion” into the Grateful Dead culture. What was that process like for you?
OB: Media is what it is. It’s a truly scary thing. It can turn so mean and brutal on a dime. I seriously want to ignore it but it’s impossible in the Internet age. You have to just embrace it. On the other hand part of the media trip has been really fun. I feel like I helped pull off the extremely improbable/impossible: Converting Deadheads to John Mayer fans! Having all of that play out in the media was a wild ride! I’ll never forget it! It taught me a lot too. About being judgmental.
Also, let me say that John’s radar for paparazzi is amazing. Fame is a weird, weird thing. I’m really glad I can still go to the grocery store!
L4LM: If the Allman Brothers were to reunite down the line, would you participate in those shows as well? Is there enough room in one brain for the whole of Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers catalogs?
OB: I’ve got plenty of room left in this brain. You should see what I learned just for New Orleans Jazz Fest alone! You literally would not believe it.
Dead & Co only does about 20-30 dates right? There’s PLENTY of time left for an ABB tour. We’ll see what happens. I’m game for it. Playing in both bands in the same year would certainly be cool. Never think your best days are behind you.
Even if you’re on your deathbed……..
L4LM: Thanks so much for everything, Oteil. Looking forward to seeing you and Dead & Company out on the road!
Dead & Company’s tour begins on June 10th and wraps around the country. Don’t miss out!