Dead & Company Bassist Oteil Burbridge on John Mayer, 'Intimidating' Jam Sessions & More

Oteil Burbridge and Bob Weir - 2013
Vernon Webb

Oteil Burbridge and Bob Weir performing in 2013.

The band will make its live debut on Halloween at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Back in April, Billboard reported that John Mayer could be joining some members of the Grateful Dead for shows in the fall. On Wednesday, the rumors came to fruition with the announcement of Dead & Company’s live debut on Halloween at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

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The band consists of Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, who will be joined by John Mayer, Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge and Jeff Chimenti on keyboards.

Speaking to Billboard the day the Dead & Co. Halloween show was announced, Burbridge explained how he got involved and his approach to playing with the band. He also shared his thoughts on the Fare Thee Well shows, his favorite Grateful Dead songs, embracing their intimidating legacy and jokes that he is not at liberty to say whether the band is planning more gigs.

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How did you get involved in Dead & Company? Who asked you to perform with the group and what was your initial reaction?

I was first called by Matt Busch, [Bob] Weir’s personal manager. He said that Bob wanted my number. I was told that I was being considered for the chair but that there were other bassists that they were looking at too. When my wife and I were in New Orleans for Jazzfest, a picture got leaked of [Phish bassist] Mike Gordon with [John] Mayer at Weir’s studio. We were like, “Oh well...” Then a few weeks later we got another call from Matt Busch.

What have the jam sessions so far been like?

It’s hard to describe really. I think it would have been easier if I hadn’t become a fan yet. After playing with [Bill] Kreutzmann and Scott Murawski in BK3, I was much more familiar with the music and had my own favorites. When I would hear the Dead in passing, which was frequently, my ear was way more tuned to it. I would get sucked into it a lot more than before. My wife plays Grateful Dead music around the house a lot. She always has. I had become a fan by the time I went into those jams, so I was a lot more nervous. The one thing you don’t want to do while you’re playing with the guys from Dead is think -- especially apprehensive, fearful, second-guessing thoughts. You just want to be in the flow.

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Did you catch or have you heard any of the Fare Thee Well Shows? If so, what are your thoughts on the concerts and how the band sounded with Trey Anastasio on guitar?

My wife Jess and I caught the first show in Santa Clara. We loved it. I heard all the comparisons between the different shows, but we only saw that one and I thought it was great. We went backstage at set break to talk with the guys about the new gig. We met Mayer for the first time there and he was super friendly, humble and enthusiastic.

I thought Trey did an amazing job. There can be so much pressure on you if you let it. I guess Trey didn’t let it. He seemed to me like he was perfectly melded into the stream of the collective band consciousness. He wasn’t trying to draw attention to himself. He was there as a true servant of the songs and the legacy. I was so proud of him. 

Mickey Hart said that you will bring “some funk to the groove.” Can you explain how your style differs from Phil Lesh and how you will honor the legacy and serve the music?

It’s so hard when you come in to bands like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band where the fans actually do know and care who the bassist is. You don’t want to copy the original guy but you feel obligated to honor what bass melodies the founding bass player crafted for the song. It’s even harder in the case of the Dead though because with [the Allman Brothers’] Berry Oakley there’s usually a specific bass line that he wrote that you can play in the verses and choruses, so you can play that and then in the jams you totally do your own thing. With Phil there’s not usually a written, repeated bass line but more of an approach or philosophy that drives his choices. Billy told me that he purposely wanted to play the opposite of conventional bass so that means it’s like the negative of a photo. Or the equivalent of anti-matter to matter. That means downbeats, heavy grooves, tons of bottom, are gonna be totally elusive. Like Mercury. 

He’s one of two people that I find impossible to copy. Allen Woody was the other one. I’m not gonna even try. The one thing I’m gonna do is try to play as gently as possible when I feel compelled to copy him. There’s a real delicate side to the Dead that I connect with from jazz recordings and some other acoustic music. I know they were really loud too but there’s a real yin approach to the music a lot of the time that I think I can tap into. At the same time I’m gonna try to play the gig as if Phil were standing onstage with me at the time. I have actually done that a couple of times so I know what it’s like. I would never dream of trying to copy him while he’s standing right beside me. Besides, Weir, Kreutzmann and Mickey don’t want me to play like Phil. I’m pretty damn sure that Phil doesn’t want me to either. I don’t think Jerry would want me to. I’m going to try to be as empathetic as possible while being as authentic as possible. I don’t see any other way to approach it. 

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Have you ever performed with John Mayer? What are your thoughts on him as a guitar player and what do you think he will bring to Dead & Company?

I never have before, but from conversations we’ve had, I know how far down the rabbit hole he’s gone with Grateful Dead music. He is so madly in love with it. When you have the skill and the talent that he has combined with being that in love with it he’s gonna do something really beautiful. It’s impossible to please every Dead fan. We are both probably way more focused on making Bob, Bill and Mickey happy. Besides, I think it was Leonard Bernstein that said, “I’ve been all over the world, countless times, and the one thing I’ve never seen is a statue of a critic.” Of course if ALL the fans hate us then we have a problem. But we both love the music and I think that love is always gonna prevail.

Do you think the shows may lean towards the bluesy rock side since Mayer is known as a proficient blues player?

No. I think when you sign up for this gig you are planning on leaving the solar system right off the bat. The whole idea behind the Grateful Dead is no boundaries right? None. It’s needs to lean one way one minute and another the next. If it doesn’t then we ain’t the right guys for the gig.

Everyone is going to curious to hear the interplay between Mayer and Bob Weir. When playing live and improving with the Allman Brothers Band, how much focus did you put on what Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes were playing and how did that influence what you played on bass?

It’s everything. Whoever is soloing is the “lead singer” at that time. You make the bed for them as best you can. You want them to be able to soar higher than they could by themselves. Gregg [Allman] approaches his solos totally differently from the guitar players. Bill Evans approaches his sax solos differently from either Gregg or Derek [Trucks] or Warren [Haynes]. Even if it’s seven different guitar players in a row they’re all going to be different. It takes time to learn a person’s tendencies. When Weir and Mayer do enough shows together it’ll happen naturally. Same for me. Kreutzmann and I already have a deep chemistry established but there’s four other guys and we all have to merge into each other fully.

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What are your favorite Grateful Dead songs and which ones are you most looking forward to performing live?

I’m really looking forward to songs I haven’t played before with Bill: “Jack Straw,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Ramble On Rose” and “Stella Blue.” Man there are so many. Jesus. Then there’s the ones that I do know that I Iove. “Birdsong,” “Estimated Prophet,” “Help on the Way/Slipknot,” “Eyes Of The World,” “Bertha,” “Sugaree,” “Althea” and on and on. We covered “Dark Star” on Jerry's birthday with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Our fans really dug it.

Do you have a favorite Grateful Dead concert you attended or have heard?

I couldn't even begin to try to single out a single recorded show! I saw one when Jerry was still alive. I wasn’t really tuned into it like I was for GD 50. I was more focused on the scene than the band back then. I tuned in a lot more when the Allman Brothers Band did some shows with the Dead more recently. My ARU bandmate Jimmy Herring also played with them and that was such a treat for me to see him in that band cause I had no ABB background and he had no Grateful Dead background and we were both like, “how did we end up here???” 

When it comes to musical improvisation how have you taken your jazz and funk influences and successfully merged them into the rock world?

Jazz and funk both are rooted in blues, R&B and gospel, and they in turn are rooted in African music, just like rock and roll. They all fit together easily cause they have the same mother. It doesn’t really require any effort or thought honestly. I have played some classical music too so that helps in certain instances.

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Needless to say The Allman Brothers Band enjoyed a fair share of jamming and improv. But do you have an idea on how performing with ABB will be different from working with Dead & Company?

I think it’s gonna be a lot looser and more unpredictable with the Dead & Company. More like the Aquarium Rescue Unit. Dead fans would always compare us (ARU) but we never got it. Now I understand. It’s not our styles that are alike but our philosophies. Last night we played this one song “Jack The Rabbit” with the ARU totally different than ever before. It wasn’t really the same song anymore, but it was. It happened totally by accident and we just purposely didn’t “correct” it. We just let it be what it was right then and it was way more fun. I don’t think that would necessarily have happened in the ABB.

Other than New Year’s Eve, Halloween is probably one of the best holidays for a concert. What do you expect from the dedicated and loyal Grateful Dead fans at Madison Square Garden on Halloween?

Holy crap! I can’t even imagine what a freak show it’s gonna be. It’s gonna be epic. I was laughing my head off today at the band’s ongoing group texts about what costumes they wanted to wear. Too funny!

The Grateful Dead’s legacy is unparalleled. What does it mean to usher in this new era for the band?

It’s intimidating, honestly. If I think about that too much it might freak me out. But it’s such an honor and it’s definitely going to be a pleasure. It’s one of those things that I never could have seen coming. Just like meeting Col. Bruce Hampton or getting the gig with the Allman Brothers Band. I am just going to breathe deep and go with the flow.