Oteil Burbridge on the innerworkings of the Allman Brothers, his love of Bluegrass and George Jones

(Originally published in 2006)

By Jon Dawson

Oteil Burbridge has played bass in The Allman Brothers Band going on a decade now, and he also has his own band, Oteil & The Peacemakers, which will be opening The Allman Brothers show at Raleigh’s Altell Pavilion on Saturday night. Burbridge talked with Free Press interviewer Jon Dawson last week about the Peacemakers, the Allmans and his taste in music.

Which songs are currently in the Peacemakers setlist?

For the most part we try to concentrate on the new album. We also do a few songs from the second record, and maybe two from the first one. We also do a few covers, such as Hendrix, “Green Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf; I’m about to introduce a George Jones song into the set; some Sly Stone, some Hank Williams Sr.

With a set like that a live album can’t be that far away.

Burbridge: That’s what I really want to do … really a live DVD, because you need to see it to get the full scope of what’s going on. We included a DVD on our second studio album (“The Family Secret”) that was pretty much a documentary about making the album, but things really happen in the live set.

What’s the best way for fans of Oteil & The Peacemakers to buy the three albums that you’ve recorded?

We’re on iTunes, we’re in Borders book stores, and you can buy it straight from the record company via links on http://www.oteilburbridge.com. We also sell them at our live shows.

How long will your solo set be when you open for the Allman Brothers at Altell?

I think we’ll have a 45-minute set.

So your band will open the show, then (Allman Brothers bandmate) Derek Trucks’ solo band will do a set, and then there is a full Allman Brothers set?


The fans are really getting their money’s worth that night.

Burbridge: (laughs) Yeah, I think so.

Are the Peacemakers working on a new studio album or will the live project be your focus?

I’m really pushing for the live project. I haven’t been able to do that yet and that’s what I really want to do. I’d love for a live DVD to be the next Peacemakers project.

You never seem to be off of the road for very long. Do you usually write while you’re on the road, or do you have to wait until you’re home?

It’s not really a question of where, as I tend to write when I have to; wherever I’m at when it has to get done it doesn’t matter. … It has do get done (laughs). But I prefer, if I have downtime, to write at home.

The Bryan Hanks Show airs on 960-AM in Kinston, and 960TheBull.com daily at 7 a.m. & 3 p.m. It also airs on the suite of 252ESPN.com stations in New Bern and Greenville (107.5-FM) at 6 p.m.

Do you have a studio at home or do you just set up a tape recorder on the kitchen table?

I just hook my bass up to my laptop, so that makes it easy whether I’m at home or on the road.

If you write a song that you want to submit to the Allman Brothers, do you just show it to Greg or Warren or do you show it to the entire band at rehearsal?

I show it to everybody at rehearsal, for sure.

Whenever you’re not on the road, or writing, or recording, what do you do to relax?

Oh, yeah, I love to get on my scooter and ride; I had a motorcycle and got in a wreck so it was totaled, so I’ve demoted to a scooter (laughs).

Yeah, you need to look out for those hands.

Well I always wear (protective) gear…that kept me from getting really messed up. But just being at home is great. … I don’t really have to do much at all to enjoy it.

Where do you currently live?

Birmingham, Ala.

Usually when The Allman Brothers play Altell they pull out some seldom played originals or some interesting cover tunes. Do you know which songs might pop up in the setlist Saturday night?

You can never really tell because somebody might say, ‘We should do this tune,’ and if it’s fairly easy and we don’t have to rehearse it, it’ll end up in the set that night.

Are there any cover songs that a member of the band keeps suggesting but the band refuses to play?

No, I think we’re pretty much on the same page as far as songs that we might want to do that aren’t Allman Brothers originals. There has to be something classic about it, whether it’s well known or not.

That version of “I Walk On Guilded Splinters” that you guys did last year was incredible.

Yeah, that’s a great song and Butch Trucks (drummer for the Allmans) played on the original version with Johnny Jenkins. I really can’t remember anybody suggesting a song to cover and it being met with ridicule. We all pretty much know what type of material will work for The Allman Brothers.

I guess everybody has good enough sense not to suggest covering a song by Blondie?

Oh, absolutely.

I’d pay good money to see Greg Allman singing “Heart Of Glass.”

RIGHT! (laughs)

The Beacon Run seems to somehow get bigger and better every year. Those shows are so popular that you guys could probably set up there for four months out of the year and not have to tour at all. What sticks out in your mind from this years run of shows?

I guess for me, one of the highlights was when Bernard Purdie, Jerry Jemmott, and Cornell Dupree sat in and did “Memphis Soul Stew” from the King Curtis record Live At The Fillmore. They were the original rhythm section. You know who else was great? Peter Frampton.

People forget that he played all of that great guitar in Humble Pie.

He was really awesome. I wasn’t that familiar with him. … All I knew about him was his teenybopper phase in the late ’70s, but he’s an incredible player, and a really nice guy.

Are The Allman Brothers working on a new album?

Well, we’re all out doing stuff with our own solo bands right now, so we’ve just got to carve out some time and get together to work on it.

I’ve read some fan reviews of recent Allman’s shows that mention a few new originals popping up, such as “Elijah Blue” and an instrumental called “Egypt”?

Yeah, there are a couple of new things floating around. We got together to rehearse for the Beacon shows, and we got those together during the rehearsals.

How was “Egypt” written?

That’s something that I wrote about four years ago, and we rehearsed it a little but it just went away. Then when we were rehearsing for the Beacon shows this year somebody mentioned it, so we worked it up, and apparently hearing it fresh did the trick, and we played it at some of the shows.

Let’s talk about the latest Allman’s album, “Hittin’ The Note,” which was one of the best reviewed studio albums that they’ve ever made. From the accounts of the bandmembers that I’ve read, it seems like it was also the best recording experience that the band has had in decades.

Yeah, it was quick … not long and drawn out. The problem with the studio is that if you stay in there too long, you kill the vibe, and that’s why the recording of the last Allman Brothers album was so great.

The track “Instrumental Illness” from the “Hittin’ The Note” album was nominated for a Grammy that year. You co-wrote that track with Warren Haynes, and I was curious as to how you guys wrote that?

Warren had that riff that starts the song. … I didn’t really contribute an awful lot to the writing of it, aside from the chord changes in the jam section where the solos are.

It seems to have become a fan favorite along with other classic instrumentals in the band’s catalog, such as “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” and “Jessica.”

I’m really glad that people enjoy it. It’s really hard with a band like The Allman Brothers that have such classic instrumentals in their catalog, but you just keep working and hope that one day you’ll hit upon one of those classic songs.

I wonder if the band would ever consider just recording the new songs on tour, and release a live album of all new songs?

Oh, it could be done, but we just haven’t tried it yet. I think they record the show every night.

Speaking of which, the Instant Live Series (fans are able to buy a professionally produced CD of the show on their way out every night) has become really popular, hasn’t it?

Yeah, I prefer live Allman Brothers records over the studio albums anyway. The live album that we released in 2004 (One Way Out) and the live DVD from the Beacon shows of that same year are just incredible. You get all of that energy from the crowd that is impossible to get on a studio album.

The “One Way Out” live album and the corresponding ‘Live At The Beacon Theatre” DVD really seemed to be the slam dunk in a comeback that started with the “Hittin’ The Note” studio album. I was wondering if the band plans to release any more live albums through their record label, or if the Instant Live Series has replaced that.

It’s hard to tell. … The Instant Live thing is still fairly new. It really seems to work, but that’s the kind of thing that would be up to Greg, Jaimoe and Butch. But I think they’re going to stick with the Instant Live thing for the time being.

Does the fact that some people refer to you guys as a “jam band” bother you?

Well, I don’t think of it as “jam band” music, but people like to label things, and I haven’t been able to come up with a suitable name for it, so I’m glad they did (laughs).

It seems that The Allman Brothers are more of a jazz band than a jam band, because when jazz musicians such as John Coltrane or Miles Davis and their bands would solo, there would be a strong composition to base the improvisation on, rather than just endless noodling that permeates so much of the jam band ethic today.

Well, noodling is only good if it’s in contrast to something else. … If it’s just noodling with nothing else around it, then it goes nowhere. Sometimes it’s good to noodle just a bit to ease your way into something solid that turns into a freight train! (laughs)

At its core, the Allman Brothers are a blues band, but it seems that the band has also moved back into some interesting jazz territory that they hadn’t touched on very much since the first three albums. What do you attribute that to? I know that you, (guitarist) Derek Trucks and (drummer) Jaimoe are hardcore jazz fans, but I’m assuming that the whole band must be into it to some degree to be able to play it so well?

Oh yeah, they’re all large jazz fans, it’s just that Jaimoe and I have more experience playing straight jazz gigs. But if you put on a Jimmy Smith record Greg will run into the room and go “Oh Yeah!”.

I read a few years back that there is a tape of the original version of the band doing a version of “My Favorite Things.” Is that true?

You know, I’ve heard that too. I think that’s true. … I’ll ask them about that tonight when I see them.

Are there any Allman Brothers songs that you haven’t played live with the band yet that you’d like to? I’ve wondered what this version of the band could do with a track like “True Gravity” from the “Seven Turns” album.

Well, you know I played that with them when Dickey Betts was still in the band, and I thought that was one of the cooler instrumentals that we’ve played. But we haven’t done it since then, so I guess somebody didn’t like it. (laughs) I do miss doing ‘Please Call Home’, as we haven’t done that one in a while. Purely from a selfish standpoint, I love playing those Berry Oakley basslines on stuff like “Every Hungry Woman”, “Leave My Blues At Home”, “Stand Back”, “Don’t Keep Me Wondering”, just such classic stuff for bass.

Is Jaimoe half as hilarious as he comes off in his interviews?

He’s five times as hilarious. … You just have to be around him. Any phone conversation you have with him will be really funny.

Is it true that you didn’t know any Allman Brothers songs when you auditioned?

Well, initially they just called me up and offered me the job. They flew me down to Dickey Bett’s home in Florida, and I didn’t know what they wanted me to learn, but in retrospect I should have learned the long instrumentals, as that’s what Dickey wanted to see if I could handle. You see the Allman Brothers is like five bands in one. … You’ve got blues tunes, these long instrumentals…songs like “Ramblin’ Man” and “Blue Sky” that have a country flavor, then there are funk tunes like “Stand Back” and “Don’t Keep Me Wondering”, and songs that are hard to categorize like “Midnight Rider” and “Please Call Home”. So there was no way to learn 28 years of music in the time that I had, so I just familiarized myself on a general basis. Then Dickey found out that I grew up in D.C. and hadn’t played Allman Brothers songs all my life, so then he said that we had to have auditions, so it was kinda scary for a while, but when they set up auditions they told me and the other three guys auditioning what to learn, and I learned them and got the gig anyway. But to this day there are entire albums of theirs that I haven’t heard because they asked me not to listen to them! (laughs)

I’m assuming those would be albums that they recorded for the Arista label?

Yeah, I don’t even know the names to those because they said, ‘Please don’t listen to those!”.

Of the bass players that preceded you in the Allman Brothers, which player is closest to your style, and which player would be the furthest from your style?

I’d say that they’re all really different from my style. I never played with a pick until I joined The Allman Brothers. I was playing with just my fingers, and it was good, but was missing something, and then (guitar tech) Joe Dan Petty handed me a 4-string with flat wound strings and a pick, and it all came together. I used to play all of the new Allman Brothers songs with a six-string bass, but then I picked up a 1963 Fender P-Bass 4-string, so my style has morphed a couple of times since I’ve been with the Allman Brothers.

What is your favorite song from the modern era of The Allman Brothers?

I’d say “Desdemona.” Greg has a way of taking simple chord movements and makes them sound so fresh. He really caught that classic “thing” that you have in “Midnight Rider” or “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More”. And he sings it so great…it puts in you a different place.

How about your favorite of the older songs?

Man that would be impossible to pick. … EVERYTHING on the first two records would be a tie for one, and there’s stuff on “Eat A Peach” that’s just ridiculous.

You guys usually have special guests (Branford Marsalis, Susan Tedeschi) at the Altell shows. Any hints as to who will be there this year?

We won’t know until that day….it just depends on who is in town. I’m not into keeping it a big secret..if I knew I’d tell ya. (laughs)

Who were the first musicians that inspired you when you were a kid?

Oh, I was so young. … I started playing drums at 5. Jazz was played in my house when I was growing up — Max Roach and Elvin Jones … Kenny Clark. My dad was into Bebop, and so was I. I got to see Buddy Rich before he died. Another one of my idols was Roy Haynes. …. He turned 81 the day after he sat in with us, and he just tore it up! He played with Charlie Parker and all of those legendary jazz guys. … The list is a mile long. The only rock and roll records I ever bought were Hendrix records.

If you had to have a day job that didn’t involve music, what would you want it to be?

Wow, if I could get paid to read (laughs). It’d be nice to be able to raise money for people that are really having a hard time. There’s so much going on in Birmingham regarding the homeless that it’s unbelievable. I was talking to a buddy the other day, and we decided that if the rich, upscale churches in Birmingham, some of which have luxuries like their own health club, for example, would donate 1 percent of their income to this problem, then a lot of these problems would be taken care of, and what a great message that would send.

Who are some of the artists on your iPod?

Oh dude, now that’s a question that could take a long time to answer! (laughs). I basically listen to music on my laptop, and I put it on a random shuffle. I’ve got George Jones, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr, lots of bluegrass … Stanley Brothers, obviously Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Del McCoury, loads of jazz, funk, Cuban, tons of Delta Blues, Electric Blues, classical music, Indian music. It’s all over the place.

Do you think you’d ever want to do a bluegrass project or a Cuban project?

Burbridge: Well I used to do a lot of bluegrass gigs when I was with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. I lived with a banjo player for about a year and half during that time, and one of my best friends is Matt Mundy who was our mandolin player, so they introduced me to bluegrass. I just saw Sam Bush a few weeks ago, and his band was SMOKING! I’d really rather just listen and be a fan. I’d rather hear the original thing. When an original in a genre of music sits in with the Allman Brothers like blues legend Little Milton, I’m thinking, ‘Why am I up here?’ (laughs) I want to go sit in the crowd and listen. … He doesn’t need me! (laughs)

Even on just a strictly technical level, those bluegrass guys are some of the greatest musicians in the world.

People who are into music and haven’t checked out bluegrass need to find out what a genius Earl Scruggs is … just flat out genius. It’s unbelievable to hear Ralph Stanley sing. Unbelievable.

Are there any new artists that you’re into that you’d like to shine a light on?

I listen to very little new stuff….there are a few things here and there. I actually wrote down a few things on my computer, as I can never remember. But I will open up my laptop here….(opens up computer)…here we go….(reads list)…current bands that I like. (laughs) A band called Soulwide….an incredible trio. …Medeski, Martin and Wood, Derek Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi … both of them just put out great records. There’s this band called Screaming Headless Torsos that are incredible…Garaj Mahal…Ola Bell.

FP: How about Robert Randolph?

Burbridge: Yeah, I like a lot of the older guys like the Campbell Brothers and Aubrey Gent. Then there’s this young dude Roosevelt that plays with The Lee Boys, and they’re great. Actually we just did a show with Jack Pearson’s band, and they’re awesome. There’s a singer/songwriter David Ryan Harris out of Atlanta that should be super famous.

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