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Oteil Burbridge returns to Borderland, playing bluegrass Dead tunes

Oteil Burbridge has a serious resume. In fact, it's about as serious it gets in the world of improvisation-heavy music.

A founding member of the Aquarium Rescue Unit under the direction of the late, great Col. Bruce Hampton, Burbridge spent six years as the band’s bassist, before the Allman Brothers Band came knocking. He became a major factor in that band’s later-career renaissance, playing alongside Gregg Allman, Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes, and touring and recording right up until the band’s dissolution, in 2014. By that point, Oteil was already performing alongside his brother, the late multi-instrumentalist Kofi Burbridge, in the Tedeschi Trucks Band.

When, in 2015, Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir began planting the seeds for what would become Dead & Company, Burbridge found himself on the short list, his soulful, virtuosic and multi-idiomatic bass playing and singing by that point a more-than-proven commodity. When that band’s roster was finalized, it was no surprise to see Burbridge joining Weir, John Mayer, drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti on the bandstand. In fact, the choice seemed like a no-brainer.

Along the way, Burbridge has managed to carve out time for musical education and mentoring programs, solo work, a sophomore effort from the super-group Vida Blue – alongside Phish keyboardist Page McConnell and Meters drummer Russell Batiste – and periodic gigs with his own Oteil & Friends ensemble.

One of those turned out to be an incredibly bittersweet appearance as part of the inaugural Borderland Music + Arts Festival in East Aurora in 2018, a rapturously received performance that would sadly turn out to be the last time Oteil and Kofi shared a stage.

I caught up with Burbridge as he prepared to return for Borderland’s sophomore run – he’ll play as part of Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass with fellow guests the Infamous Stringdusters at 6:30 p.m. on Day Two of the fest, Sunday, Sept. 22 – and we talked about mentorship, bluegrass, the steady growth of Dead & Company, and his impending return to Borderland.

Oteil Burbridge. (Photo courtesy The 11e1even Group)

Q: Your work as an educator and mentor with Roots Rock Revival in the Catskills every year and it seems to mean a great deal to you. Can you tell me a bit about this experience? How important is mentorship and the idea of ‘passing it on’ to you?

A: I always enjoy teaching. I learn something about myself every time I do it. We’ve done the camp for six years now, so I’ve watched a lot of our younger students make a lot of progress. Some of them are now going off to college and are out there gigging already.

It’s so beautiful to see how excited they are about coming to camp, and to see lifelong friendships begin and grow, year after year. It’s also sort of a humbling experience, because it reminds me of the example I always have to set for the younger students. I have a son of my own now, so it’s a little easier, because I have to do the same thing for him. I always want him to be proud of me. The same goes for our younger students.

The one thing that I want to pass on for them the most is to always play music for the joy and inspiration first. It doesn’t mean I want them to blow off practicing, but I want to make practice fun and not drudgery. I’ve seen so many people get turned off from playing because they were forced to play things that they weren’t really into. Fortunately, I had great teachers that didn’t take the fun out of it.

I try to encourage people to play again, even if they’re in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s or 60’s! Why not? It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.

Part of what’s so unique about the Dead songbook is the way it lends itself to almost endless interpretation, in just about any style imaginable. It’s not hard to imagine "Stella Blue" or "If I Had the World to Give" performed as jazz ballads, for example. Tell me what excites you about approaching this material from a bluegrass perspective with Keller and the Infamous Stringdusters?

I’ve loved bluegrass music for a long time now. I used to play it a lot back when I first met Col. Bruce Hampton, in 1988. But it’s been a while since I’ve played it.

It’s gonna be great to approach the Dead catalog from that perspective. I really love Keller and the Infamous String Dusters. I even had the good fortune to get a banjo lesson from Chris Pandolfi (of the Infamous Stringdusters) a while back. I picked up banjo myself when my wife moved to Africa for a year. I’m a big fan of (bluegrass supergroup) Old & In the Way, too, though I’m not good enough to play it on banjo yet.

It will be so great to be sandwiched between Keller and the Stringdusters playing Grateful Dead tunes, especially since I know the songs a lot better now.

It really seems like Dead & Company truly hit its stride this summer. Everyone is playing and singing beautifully, the jams have been extraordinary, and the vibe has been tremendously positive. Do you feel like the band turned a corner this summer?

I don’t think we turned a corner so much as we are just continually becoming more in tune with the music, with each other, and with the hardcore fans. It’s a process just like any relationship. I definitely agree with you that we reached a new high, but that is exactly what should happen, if everyone has their health and they’re still into it.

It’s still new to John (Mayer) and I. We are starting later than most, but next year will be our fifth year together. We are putting in the miles and we are all growing together, so I guess it’s showing.

The 2018 Borderland Festival Oteil & Friends gig was so amazing and has already assumed legendary status around here. Do you have any special memories of that show, as you prepare to come back to the same site?

I most certainly do have special memories of that show. It was the last gig I ever did with my big brother Kofi, before he passed away. It was the day after his birthday.

I remember how much the Deadheads responded to his playing. He played this beautiful flute solo on "High Time" and people just went nuts. It was the first time he ever played the music of the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band. I was looking forward to playing so many more of those tunes with him, but it wasn’t meant to be. I really need to get a recording of that show.

It will be good to come back with a different band this time. I probably won’t be as sad thinking about Kofi. Bluegrass is such happy music anyway. It will be such a nice vibe.

. . .

The Borderland Music + Arts Festival takes place at Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora on Saturday, Sept. 21 and Sunday, Sept. 22, beginning at 11 a.m. both days. A full schedule and ticket information is available here.

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