Sounds of the South
Some consider Washington, D.C. a part of the South. But Oteil Burbridge, who was born and raised in the capital city, has been to the South and breathed it in, and Washington isn’t it.Burbridge, who lives now in Birmingham, Ala., after a stretch of several years in Atlanta, has been the bassist for two quintessential Southern bands. In the late ’80s, while living in Atlanta, Burbridge was part of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, visionary singer-guitarist Col. Bruce Hampton’s obscenely talented band. In 1997, Burbridge was invited to join a rejuvenating version of the great Southern rock group the Allman Brothers Band.In his native Washington, Burbridge, like all his siblings, learned piano and violin. Oteil also started playing drums at 5 and, sensing opportunity, added the bass guitar to his arsenal at 14.”Back then, and probably still now, there’s a shortage of bass players,” he explained. “So I ended up getting a lot more work on that.”Burbridge began drifting south as a teenager. He dipped his toe into the South with a move to Virginia Beach, Va., some 150 miles from D.C. – not anybody’s idea of the deep South, least of all Burbridge’s. The music scene was thin, but the work in the beach resort was good. Burbridge and his brother, Kofi, a keyboardist and flutist who would join him in the Aquarium Rescue Unit, made steady money playing in cover bands.Then, Burbridge got the call to come to the real South. “Someone told us there was some good music and good work in Atlanta,” he said. At first, the going was rough. He and Kofi played, together and separately, in cover bands and wedding bands. Soon enough, however, the two met Hampton, a former military man and onetime leader of the way-ahead-of-its time Hampton Grease Band. Hampton was the ringleader of a weekly Monday night jam at Atlanta’s Little Five Points Pub, and the talent he attracted was impressive. By 1989, Hampton was leading the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and by the early ’90s, the lineup solidified with guitarist Jimmy Herring, mandolinist Matt Mundy, drummer Jeff “Apt. Q-258″ Sipe, the two Burbridge brothers, and Hampton on a miniature electric guitar called a chazoid. The music, a mix of jazz fusion, funk and bluegrass, was spellbinding, and the band became a cornerstone of the nascent jam-band scene, participating in the first H.O.R.D.E. tour, alongside Phish, Widespread Panic and Blues Traveler.”It was a crazy-ass band,” Burbridge said. “It was quite a special time. Oh, God, that was just magic. One of those things you don’t realize while it’s happening.”Recently, someone gave Burbridge a tape of an Aquarium Rescue Unit performance from Telluride’s Fly Me to the Moon Saloon. “I hadn’t listened to the stuff in forever. There’s so many live tapes out, I hardly ever listen,” he said. “But this blew me away. I didn’t feel like I did it. That s–t was crazy. I was laughing out loud.”The magic wore off too quickly. In 1993, Mundy retired from music, and Hampton, for health reasons, quit touring. The band carried on, first with Oteil out front, then with singer Paul Henson. The momentum stalled as two post-Hampton albums fell flat, and the band ground to a halt in 1996. There have been occasional reunion concerts, but no real touring.In 1997, guitarist Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody left the Allman Brothers, a band they had reinvigorated in the late ’80s, to focus on their side project, Gov’t Mule. Called in to replace them were two members of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, now readily available.One of them knew next to nothing about what he was getting into. Burbridge remembers hearing “Whipping Post” at a party in high school, and its jazzy touches made an impression. But Burbridge didn’t put the sound together with his concept of the Allmans.”It caught my ear. It reminded me of Tony Williams’ Lifetime,” he said. “But I thought of the Allmans like Lynyrd Skynyrd; I didn’t think it had jazz elements.”Burbridge was introduced to the Allmans through Herring and Derek Trucks, the other guitarist in the Allmans. He joined the band with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.”I didn’t think it would last six months. I didn’t have one record,” he said. “But it was still a big thing for me, and I knew a lot of musicians I respected dug them.”Quickly, though, Burbridge found his groove in the Allmans. “I wouldn’t have tried, and it wouldn’t have worked” without feeling an instant rapport, he said. “When you know there’s compatibility, there’s still a process. When I got their first five records, I knew this was some really cool stuff.”With a lineup including relatively young guns Haynes, Trucks and Burbridge, the Allmans, who had retired for much of the ’80s, roared to life. The band started playing their legendary weeks-long runs at New York City’s Beacon Theatre each March, and in 2003 released the respectable “Hittin’ the Note” album.”Usually when you get a gig that pays that much, you’re going to be earning your money,” said Burbridge, who was scheduled to appear with the Allman Brothers Friday night at Red Rocks. “These tunes, you can stretch out and have fun. I have friends who have big pop gigs, and they might have some fun. But they ain’t having fun like I’m having fun.”Burbridge is also having fun as a bandleader. In 1996, he put together the first version of Oteil & the Peacemakers, and the band played a bit here and there. As Burbridge’s profile has been raised – and after he learned the Allman’s repertoire – he has focused more attention on the band. Three years ago, the band solidified with a lineup of keyboardist Matt Slocum, guitarist Mark Kimbrell, drummer Chris Fryar and singer Paul Henson. Last year, the band released the CD, “Believe.”The Peacemakers is a repository for all of Burbridge’s musical ideas: Southern boogie, fusion, gospel and his singing.”It’s like the Aquarium Rescue Unit, but with no bluegrass, because we have no bluegrass instrumentation,” he said. “But I’ve found I can do county tunes. I’ve been doing a George Jones song, and we’re working on a few Hank Sr. tunes.”I love any kind of folk music: blues, bluegrass, country, Latin, classical. I just want to play music. I don’t care what kind it is. Me singing George Jones – that’s funny.”Oteil & the Peacemakers play today in the JAS Music Tent, and tonight in the Cabaret Room of the Silvertree Hotel, in the JAS After Dark Snowmass Block PartyStewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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