The way Oteil Burbridge sees it, the human experience charts the same path as a sine wave. While noticeably marked by peaks and valleys, ups and downs, the shape it takes over time is one of balance, of symmetry. That means he’s not just accepting of life’s obstacles but grateful for them.
“If you’re listening to music, what’s this?” he asked during a conversation with Live For Live Music, tracing an even line across his field of vision with his finger. “Nothing. I mean… you need some silence… say, meditation. But still, as you breathe in and out, there’s the sine wave again. That’s life. It’s the payoff and the tab.”
It’s a metaphor Oteil has been mulling over for quite some time, though it surfaced with notable frequency as he discussed his return to The Capitol Theatre for a two-night run with Oteil & Friends on Friday, March 11th and Saturday, March 12th featuring Eric Krasno, Jason Crosby, Jennifer Hartswick, Natalie Cressman, James Casey, Tom Guarna, and Pete Lavezzoli [get tickets].
The renowned bassist and bandleader sounded hopeful about the coming of a metaphorical spring but refused to discount the utter necessity of the last two pandemic-rattled years. “I think it’s just like a sine wave,” he reaffirmed. “You know, the sine wave goes exactly [the same distance] underneath neutral as it does above. So, there is no one without the other. That’s just all there is to it. Like, it’s not going to be spring all the time. Sorry. It gets super hot, and it’s also going to get super cold, so enjoy that spring, enjoy that fall, and enjoy the parts that are close to each of those.”
A conversation with Oteil often moves much like a sine wave itself, swinging from one topic to another with earnest fascination and free association. Discussions about the beautiful impurity of “American music” might lead to the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band, which leads to gumbo, which leads to New Orleans, which leads him to ponder the positive reverberations of slavery, which leads to the spiritual virtue of suffering:
There’s nothing pure about any American music. It’s all mutts, and there’s a vigor in that just like with a mutt as opposed to an inbred. I mean, the Dead and the Allman Brothers, that’s what they were doing, was gumbo. Speaking of that, I mean New Orleans, ah! What do you say? Thank God for slavery? I mean, none of this would’ve happened without slavery. It’s like God or the Universe or whatever can take the worst crap and just bring up a diamond out of it.
A talk about the otherworldly buzz in the air at The Capitol Theatre leads to the validity of experimentation with ESP, which reminds him of a new segment about cosmic synchronicities that he’s adding to his podcast, Comes A Time, which leads him to another fruit of the pandemic, his lessons platform, The Ozone. Devised as outlets for Oteil’s far-reaching interests as venues stood empty in 2020, these new endeavors now afford him the luxury of pulling the many academic, philosophical, political, and spiritual threads that capture his attention beyond his day job. If not for the pandemic, he may never have explored those paths.
“The sine wave goes down, and goes back up,” he intoned with a knowing smile, tracing the curve in the air with his finger.
He tends to apply that same lens to his eventful year on tour with Dead & Company. As Delta cases spiked late last summer, the Grateful Dead offshoot bubbled up, committed to the “safety dance,” and managed to mount a 31-date tour of amphitheaters and stadiums without any pandemic-related derailments—”kind of a miracle,” Burbridge admitted.
That luck ran out in January of 2022 as the surging Omicron variant and a positive case within the band led to the eleventh-hour cancellation of the two-weekend Mexican getaway, Playing In The Sand—a far more complicated engagement to untangle than any given U.S. tour date.
Oteil chooses to see the balance between those opposing outcomes. “A couple of things that I found,” he explained of the experience. “One, we didn’t have any bad nights. We didn’t have any off nights. I think when you know that that gig might be the last gig of the whole tour, it’s more of a celebration. It’s more of a… everything, you know? So, the key is to just do that all the time because we really don’t know, regardless of a pandemic or not. It could be a car crash or whatever.”
“I really hope that we don’t have to tour like that again,” he continued, “because the second thing that I learned is that ‘no pain, no gain’ also applies to spiritual growth, as well as bodily. It did bring me to a new spiritual place and maybe even a [new] height, but the depth you had to go to to balance out that seesaw, it was tough. So, I’m not looking forward to doing it that way again.”
“But we may have to,” he added, “so that’s the third thing I learned, is that I can do it.”
“Just don’t give up hope when it’s down at the bottom or right before the bottom,” he advised. After all, the lowest point on a sine wave also marks the beginning of its upswing. “It’s a challenge, but it’s squeezing the juice out of the music, man.”
James Casey, the Trey Anastasio Band saxophonist set to join Oteil at The Capitol Theatre, is quite familiar with that cosmic squeeze. On top of the baseline obstacles presented by the last two years, Casey spent the end of 2021 in treatment for colon cancer. The Oteil & Friends shows at The Cap will be among Casey’s first major live appearances since his diagnosis last fall.
“It’s like just what we were talking about,” Burbridge said, a proud smile on his face as he considered the stakes of Casey’s return. “You don’t know what show’s your last, pandemic or not, so to see him face this … to be walking through part of this with him as we work together, it’s serious, man. It’s heroic and inspiring, and it makes the shows mean more. It makes the moments mean more. You’ll feel it in the music at The Cap. There’s no doubt about it, man. There’s so much love going around.”
The love between longtime friends and collaborators coming back together will not be the only metaphysical frequency rippling through the Port Chester, NY theater on March 11th and 12th. The historic “rock palace” brings plenty of its own spirits to bear. Having played The Capitol Theatre with a wide variety of combinations, Oteil Burbridge is well acquainted with the storied energy that resonates within its walls.
“I believe in ghosts, and I believe in spirits and aliens and multiple dimensions and all these things,” he said nonchalantly. “Time-space proceeds out of consciousness, consciousness comes first. So, of course, all those things, all those vibrations echo in The Cap Theatre. … Every time we go to The Cap, there’s that thing, like if you were to play in a church or a synagogue or a mosque or an ashram or something, you’re going to have that extra thing that’s reverential.”
“I really want to connect with people on that level because, to me, all this stuff is related,” he explained. “How am I going to sit here and talk about music and not talk about spirituality? How am I going to talk about spirituality without talking about injustice? Then, we’re at politics. So, now I’m like, I just want to talk about music, but now we got politics, religion, science. They’re all connected.”
“All I could do is try to figure it out and then try to do something that is adding more into the positive side of the seesaw, and just ride the pendulum of life,” he figured, alluding once again to the Great Sine Wave as he circled back to the crests and troughs of recent years. “As low as you went, it goes high. That’s why spiritual growth is hard, because who wants to go to Hell? … What Buddha said, the first noble truth: suffering.”
“Musically, what is it that has the most power?” he wondered, allowing the conversation to drift to its next natural topic. “You go back and you listen to that old blues and that old gospel, Mahalia [Jackson], people that were just so oppressed. You listen to that music and, man… all over the world, on other planets, they’re like, ‘Oh my God. Did you hear Mahalia? We should visit that planet. Did you feel that!? Whoa!’ I felt it. Everybody felt it. But you have to go through it to get to that.”
He proposed a metaphor to support his parabolic thesis: “I used to say everybody loves the fine wine but no one wants to be the grapes getting stepped on to get to that fine wine. You thought the end of the story was the grape, crushed. No, that wasn’t the end of the story. So with you, and so with me. … The wine wins.”
“That’s what all religions are for, man, just a metaphor,” he continued. “Science says, ‘We think reality is like this,’ and it uses an equation. And then, religion says, ‘We think reality is like this,’ and it uses a story. Left brain, right brain, sine wave, complimentary. It’s all so logical. It’s like, how can you inhale without exhaling? How can you be left brain and just say the right brain is meaningless and for nothing? Come on, man, come on! That’s so unscientific.”
Tangents like this tend to derail all of Oteil’s interviews, he admitted with a hint of mischief in his smile, but he’s done apologizing for it. “That all goes into the music. … How can you be so dull to not want to understand what’s going on here? I’m utterly perplexed.”
“Now, if we could just all realize that we’re kind of all doing that,” he surmised, “then we wouldn’t be so opposed to each other, I think. But that’s natural, too, because that’s the sine wave. You know, no love without hate. Or else you have a flatline, and then you’re dead, so you’ve got to take the bad with the good.”
Oteil Burbridge heads to The Capitol Theatre on Friday, March 11th and Saturday, March 12th for a pair of Oteil & Friends performances featuring Eric Krasno (guitar), Jason Crosby (keys), Jennifer Hartswick (trumpet), Natalie Cressman (trombone), James Casey (saxophone), Tom Guarna (guitar), and Pete Lavezzoli (drums). Get tickets here. For a full list of upcoming concerts at The Cap, head to the venue website.
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