The founders of the Aquarium Rescue Unit are among the forefathers of the Southern jam scene that arose from the 1990s. The Atlanta-bred band, led by the self-styled Colonel Bruce Hampton, bridged a generational divide between fellow statesmen the Allman Brothers Band and acts like Virginia-based Dave Matthews Band that would spend the next two decades filling arenas and headlining festivals.
Bassist Oteil Burbridge has served as the strongest link between those generations, having not only been a member of Aquarium Rescue Unit, but having also performed with incarnations of Allman Brothers Band in recent years.
Burbridge has strong ties to Birmingham and spoke to Weld about them before Aquarium Rescue Unit’s Aug. 5 set at Iron City. He also chatted about the band’s decision to reunite and if the Allman Brothers Band will ever do the same.
Weld: How long were you in Birmingham? What brought you here and why did you decide to leave?
Oteil Burbridge: I met my ex-wife there and moved there not long after. We were together for 16 years. I moved away after we divorced and I’ve been back in Atlanta ever since.
Weld: What do you feel like the jam scene of the ’90s evolved from? What was the spark that created that fire?
Burbridge: Honestly, I see an unbroken line from the ’60s. I feel like hippies never really quit being hippies. They just gave birth to and accepted more straights that were ready to opt out into the community. They’re pretty accepting of blues, R&B, jazz, bluegrass, etc. … i.e. non-hippies. You just got to loosen up!
The law of attraction was probably half of it. I saw the coolest clip of Jerry [Garcia] and Bobby [Weir] in a documentary called The Other One where Jerry summed it up best. I’m paraphrasing, but he basically said that hippies just created their own world that they live in as a response to the “new lame one” that they’d been offered. It really was and is a religious movement/reformation. They came out of the Beat generation, which was linked to the jazz scene. It was jazzers, folkies, bluesmen and beatniks that took acid and played with distortion.
We can trace this rebellious, freedom-seeking spirit all the way back through the founding of our country. We would do well to remember that the founding fathers were smoking weed and brewing beer quite energetically, too. Every revolution in the history of mankind was and is the spark for that fire, the constant seeking of more freedom to evolve into an ever-growing good. Of course, all human revolutions have had some very negative side effects too. Not one of them is totally unblemished — even the revolution that Jesus, the “sinless one,” started. None have escaped the taint.
But I see that spark from Phish all the way back through Col. Bruce, The Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band, to the beatniks, bluesmen, jazzers, bohemians, all the way back through every revolutionary or religious movement all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians. They all had their revolutionary leaders who were cut down. The Egyptians had Akhenaten, and we had Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK. All along we’ve just been the musicians giving song to those movements. I think we’re on the verge of a new one right now.
Weld: Jam bands are retiring — Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead — how will the scene forge ahead with forefathers stepping away?
Burbridge: I really don’t see most of them stepping away. Dickey [Betts] and Phil Lesh are retiring. So is Clapton. But it seems to me that Butch [Trucks], [Allman Brothers percussionist] Jaimoe, Gregg [Allman], Billy [Kreutzmann], Bobby [Weir] and Mickey [Hart] are all actively playing and have plans to continue to do so. Most of these guys are like B.B. King, they want to go out on their shields, doing what they have been doing their entire adult lives. Being on the road is living to them. It’s clear that none of those guys are ready to retire yet. They still have some wick left in them.
I think there’s a really good chance that the Allman Brothers Band will get back together again. It would have to be with two new guitar players, but I could see it happening. I don’t think Gregg [Allman], Butch [Trucks] and Jaimoe are scared of doing it without Warren [Haynes] and Derek [Trucks]. They’ve done it without Duane [Allman], Berry [Oakley] and Dickey [Betts]. And Dickey is still alive.
It’s really up to Gregg, Jaimoe, and Butch at this point. They are all still gigging, so obviously retiring is not what they’re interested in. … Jaimoe is gonna join us in Butch’s band at PeachFest this year. Lamar Williams Jr. [son of Lamar Williams, the bassist who took over after Berry Oakley died] will be singing lead. He sounds amazing. Georgia clay is all in his voice. Bruce Katz will be on keys. Jack Pearson will be handling the slide duties with his usual wizardry. And he’s bringing a surprise guest with him on guitar to do the second guitar duties. It’s going to absolutely smoke, man.
Think about it, right now nobody does Allman Brothers music with the long jams in them, except for Butch’s band. Gregg’s doing those tunes, but he takes the long jams out. Jaimoe’s band jams them out but they only do a couple of ABB tunes. Only ABB cover bands are probably doing it, and none of them are going to be able to touch what we do with Jaimoe, Butch, Quinones, myself, Lamar Jr, Jack Pearson and Bruce Katz. No friggin’ way.
I haven’t heard the new guy yet but if Jack is bringing him in I bet he’s a bad dude. I don’t think he comes from the Southern Rock or Jamband worlds. But neither did Quinones, or myself really, and that worked out just peachy. Whether Gregg wants to do it again or not, this new band will probably play festivals and some theaters.
Weld: In those final years with the Allmans, did you ever feel burdened by their legacy or did you embrace the challenge?
Burbridge: I’m not sure in what way you mean burdened. If you mean it in the sense of being trapped playing the same old tunes, then no. So many of those songs are timeless. And they are the literal soundtrack to the last carefree time in multiple generations’ lives. Being a teenager and getting your first car, your first love, your first drink and smoke, no bills, no kids, no mortgage … that is enduring. Plus, I never get tired of “Cross To Bear,” “Dreams,” “Blue Sky”… the list goes on and on.
If you mean ‘burdened’ as in “we weren’t living up to our legacy at times” then I would have to answer, “In the beginning, yes.” Gregg wasn’t doing so well a few years back and we all thought that maybe we should call it quits. Butch even had a run of bad health. But these guys’ health is up and down all the time. Look over their history. None of them should be here. And yet they are by way of many, many miracles. And they’re ready to play.
I started to realize that we had a lot of nerve telling them when they should retire. You don’t tell a Viking he can’t go to battle anymore. If he can still walk upright then he’s going! When they get cut down in battle is when they are done and not a minute before. None of us have achieved the heights that they did — 600,000 people at Watkins Glen? Six hundred thousand, man!
I saw B.B. King sit in a chair and tell stories all night at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. It was one of the greatest privileges of my life. I missed it in ’64. Oh well, I was just being born. I laid eyes on a living saint though. Can you imagine his band telling him it was time for him to retire? How arrogant that would be, huh?
Even if they talked him into it, if he changed his mind, think how many fans would be relieved? I’m so glad he toured right up until the end. He earned it. And so have the Allman Brothers Band. I’ll be proud to help them do it if they choose to go on, no matter what the configuration.
Also, don’t you think it’s likely that the more time passes, the more money Gregg, Jaimoe and Butch are going to get offered to get it back together? I think at some point someone’s going to hit a number that’s too good to refuse. I guess we’ll see…
Weld: Was [Phish lead vocalist and guitarist] Trey Anastasio the correct choice to front The Grateful Dead for the Fare Thee Well shows?
Burbridge: Hell yes. First of all, Trey is an old road brother of mine, so I’m rooting for him all the way. Secondly, he’s a huge Grateful Dead fan, right? Thirdly, whoever they chose is the right choice ‘cause it’s their damn choice to make.
If you’re not breaking boundaries, confusing some, pissing off others, then you’re a copycat. No artist is going to get stuck copying anyone, not even himself. I applaud them for whatever direction they go in. They’re still going after all these years!
Weld: How did Aquarium Rescue Unit reunite?
Burbridge: We talk about it every year. It’s mostly scheduling that’s the problem, I think. I don’t know, though. I always say, “Plants bloom when they bloom and not one second before.” I guess it was just the right time again.
A lot of credit has to go to Souvik Dutta too, though. He not only could envision it, but he has the skill and the drive to get all the moving parts working in sync. He has really put in a hell of a lot of work to make this whole thing right. He has been so on the ball. It sure feels great this time. Plus we’re all old now and give even less of a [expletive] about everything, so that’s the perfect frame of mind to be in when you’re playing with the Col.
We’ve all been through all the B.S. that life deals you and have weathered it. Now we can be more free again like we used to just because we were young and bold. I really have to feel in a revolutionary frame of mind to properly play with the Colonel.
You look at the world now, and if you don’t feel pissed, disgusted and ready to start another revolution then you’re asleep, in my opinion. I’m basically frightened of the [Trans-Pacific Partnership].
Weld: With Aquarium Rescue Unit reunited will we see new studio music?
Burbridge: I certainly hope so. I think it would be a blast to go into the studio and do some new stuff. Everyone’s sounds are the best I’ve ever heard them. Jimmy [Herring] and Sipe sound absolutely amazing. It’s so much fun to watch. Doing a record would be really easy now. Hopefully that’s going to happen. We still got a lot of wick left too! I think it would be fun to call in some guest artists to be on the record.
Weld: With Allmans finished, what other projects fill your time now?
Burbridge: I’m doing a bunch of different things. The biggest thing happening for me right now is the birth of my first child, Nigel. He has really changed everything for me. My whole focus is on him right now.
Career-wise, things are great. I’ve been doing a lot of these super jams that different promoters put together. [Eric] Krasno, Jen Hartswick Chew and Nikki Glaspie do my favorites ‘cause they always give you lots of homework well in advance so the sets are tighter.
I liked learning the songs ahead of time even though it seemed like a lot of work to play just one night. Now I know a lot of different people’s sets: Roosevelt Collier, Eddie Roberts, Bernie Worrell, Ivan Neville, Robert Walter, Nigel Hall, Kofi… It’s really a blast.
It’s usually weekend work, too, so I can be home with my family. I just did a gig with the North Mississippi Allstars in Chicago. That was a blast. I’m doing some studio stuff with them too. I love Luther and Cody [Dickinson] to pieces. They’re like family. We’re still trying to get this project together with Warren, Vince Gill, Paul Riddle and Chuck Leavell. Scheduling that one is really a [expletive] though! But I think it’s going to be a really cool record once we finally get it done.
I have a new band with Roosevelt Collier, Matt Slocum, Alfreda Gerald (a jaw-dropping singer) and Sean O’Rourke, a drummer who I’ve played with since I was 24 years old. He and Alfreda, Kofi and I used to jam way back in the day. Sean’s a true sugar foot. I need my funk a certain way, and his damn right foot knows just what that is!
This band is going to uplift. I’m also in the process of putting together a band around Bernie Worrell. I just did a gig with him in Denver. He was killin’! I was truly starstruck. Everyone I called about it is so psyched.
Weld: Is there any chance we ever see an Oteil and the Peacemakers reunion? If I wanted to hear some of that music, where would I find it?
Burbridge: I find most of our stuff on YouTube! I pretty much live on YouTube. I just texted Chris asking him if he was into doing it again. I don’t want to hit the road with it, but I would like to play Atlanta, Birmingham, Athens, Macon, Nashville maybe. I’d want to do all new stuff.
Mark writes such great music, and I know Chris has got some new stuff too. He played me some of it. I think I might have even laid a bass track on something and emailed it back to him. Matt Slocum has been doing some writing too. Man, it could be really fun. I gotta pursue that with more intent.
Col. Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit come to Iron City on Wednesday, August 5. Doors open at 7 p.m. The show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and $28 at the door. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.