Herring With Burbridge

The Press-Register
Positive Energy - LAWRENCE SPECKER

It's not about preaching," said bassist Oteil Burbridge, who brings a unique mix of spirituality and funk to a Mobile club Saturday evening. "It's all about love and hope and forgiveness and compassion."

And for listeners who don't necessarily know what they're getting into, it's about one more thing as well: "They should expect to get their faces rocked off," Burbridge said.

As luck would have it, Mobile is one of four cities in on a limited tour combining some very promising building blocks: Burbridge himself is a renowned instrumentalist, particularly in the jam-band scene, and he has a resume to show that his reputation is deserved. Aside from serving as bassist for the Allman Brothers Band since 1997, he was a member of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, an influential jam/Southern Rock group founded by Col. Bruce Hampton. Though he has been involved in numerous other collaborations, the Peacemakers are his primary solo outlet.

On the current run of shows, he's being joined by a special guest who holds a particularly lofty place in the jam pantheon: guitarist Jimmy Herring, who was tapped last fall to take over the lead guitar spot in Widespread Panic.

The show's opening act, The Lee Boys, are a group representing the "sacred steel" tradition popularized most notably by Robert Randolph. Developed primarily in House of God Churches -- and little known outside them until the late '90s -- it's a genre in which the pedal steel guitar is used as the cornerstone of a high-energy blend founded on gospel and R&B.

While those elements are doubtless appealing enough to draw many listeners to Dauphin Street's Soul Kitchen, interviews with Burbridge and Alvin Lee of The Lee Boys make clear that the show may confound some easy expectations.

For one thing, in this context, Herring is more than just "that guy from Panic." He and Burbridge played together in the Aquarium Rescue Unit and other projects and have known each other for nearly 20 years, Burbridge reckons.

"We just get Jimmy when we can," Burbridge said. "The last time we did it, it was just magic."

His bigger point was that this meeting is not a nostalgia trip. While a couple of ARU tunes may be in the repertoire, Burbridge appeared distinctly uninterested in letting the night become a medley of material from other projects.

"Actually, I really don't want to do that," he said. "The Peacemakers is the Peacemakers."

Consequently the band's own repertoire, particularly material from its new album "Believer," likely will be the focal point, regardless of who's sitting in.

"Why do Panic when you can go see Jimmy play with Panic?" he continued. "It's the same reason I don't do a lot of Allman Brothers Band with the Peacemakers. You can go see the real thing."

The other major misconception that might need to be cleared up applies to those who hear the words "Sacred Steel" and immediately picture Robert Randolph blazing away on his pedal steel guitar at the Grammy awards telecast or on some late show.

Alvin Lee had no bad words for Randolph, but he and Burbridge both were eager to make clear that The Lee Boys come from a different end of a common musical pool.

"When you see those guys, you're pretty much seeing exactly what takes place in church," Burbridge said of The Lee Boys.

Both Burbridge and Lee agreed to a bluegrass analogy: You might think of Randolph as akin to Alison Krauss, mixing a traditional genre with outside influences and reaching a mass crossover audience -- an audience that might or might not then seek out traditionalists like Doyle Lawson or Ralph Stanley. In sacred steel, the traditionalists are represented by groups such as the Campbell Brothers and The Lee Boys, Lee said.

Pop music demands conventions like verses and choruses, Lee said. But he's hewing closer to a tradition where a song may contain only one line or three lines of lyrics, maybe just one musical hook, repeated and pumped up and elaborated until those playing and chanting and dancing it reach something approaching rapture.

(The curious will have a prime opportunity to compare the two approaches for themselves. Soul Kitchen will present Randolph on Feb. 19, which is Lundi Gras; advance tickets are $20 and go on sale today at the club. See www.soulkitchenmobile.com for details.)

As in bluegrass, tradition can be confining -- but Lee said that even in church, outside jazz and funk influences can be felt.

While Lee and Burbridge do share some musical common ground, the real unifying element of this tour appears to be their faith, and their approach to sharing it. While both are avowed exponents of Christianity, both said they are content to let the music do the talking.

"I think the best way is to do what we do," Lee said.
"This is what God did for me, this is my sense of hope," Burbridge said. "There's a lot of good energy going on around both bands."

"There's so much in life that brings us down," he said. "We need to let the pain out ... when we do that, we're left with this joy."

"Our music is definitely gospel and is rooted deep," Lee said. "We definitely want the message to be spread through the music. ... So many people, when they hear our music, they get a feeling."

"I just hope they come away from the show feeling great," said Burbridge, "and having sweated a lot from dancing."