Bass Is the Place:
Oteil and the Peacemakers dish out a blend of funk and spirituality in the Windy City


by Marley Seaman

      When Oteil Burbridge and the Peacemakers tuned up at the Chicago House of Blues on May 29th, it was the bass that was clearest in the mix. No surprise, given that the bandleader is the man sometimes called "the Michael Jordan of bass." And bass was the place as the group bounced its way through a two-hour-plus show late that night.
       The band began its set with the creeping unison riff of "Hit the Hay," Oteil's bass rumbling away under Matt Slocum's keyboards and Mark Kimbrell's guitar lines, not always in the lead, but always palpable. "Hit the Hay" set a tone for many of the songs that night: when they didn't start with a riff or hook, the band eased their way into the tunes, relaxing into the groove almost before they'd begun to play it. The group's relaxed attitude fit right into the themes of their songs - being in a rut, needing a way out, and finally finding a release, or "sweet deliverance," as Paul Henson sang in the second number, "Time Won't Tell."
       "Get Ready" was kicked off by Mark with a twisted, busy guitar line underpinned by Chris Fryar's drums. Then Oteil sprang in, playing a mix of chords and a fat, two-note bass line, seamlessly switching quickly in and out of the pocket. The song (one of five from the band's 2003 CD, The Family Secret) settled into a shuffle for Paul's vocal and a solo from Matt, who has taken over for Jason Crosby on keys. The climax of the song was a trademark, rapid-fire bass/scat solo from Oteil.
       The dreamy " Too Many Times" featured the band in its less funky, slower mode. Mark took a series of solos that showcased the most prominent Aquarium Rescue Unit influence of all the band members, a combination of aggressive, screeching notes and sweet volume swells and descending runs that at times called Jimmy Herring to mind.
       Doubling the lyrics on bass, Oteil took his first vocal of the night on "Blue Eyed Savior," the first of a number of new, unreleased Peacemakers songs played that night. It was also the first song that overtly displayed Oteil's spirituality, which returned with special prominence in "Thank You" and "Sweet Lord," but was woven into several other tunes as well.
       The band shrank down to a quartet as Paul left the stage for two instrumentals: the waggling "Butter Biscuit," the set's only song from their first album, Love of a Lifetime, and Oteil's newest composition, "Tubby," which he dedicated to and played on a red 1969 Gibson four-string bass.
       Oteil switched back to his six-string bass for "Check Yourself," an angular, driving rock tune with a dual Oteil/Paul vocal and a noisy chainsaw guitar solo from Mark. After the grateful, born-again "Thank You" came a surprise cover - Sugarloaf's "Green Eyed Lady."
       Then the group shifted gears again: Matt left, and the remaining trio dove into the classic rock songbook with a terrific, freewheeling medley of "Power of Soul" by Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC's "Back In Black." The familiar, thunderous riffs got the crowd on its feet, shouting and whistling in recognition. They were never more enthusiastic, and the long jam was the most fun of the show. Oteil's singing was reminiscent of Jimi's at-ease, relaxed delivery. Mark made great use of the extra jamming space, filling it up with howling, spinning licks over Oteil's funky backbone. For extra kicks, the song also featured a quote from Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean."
       "Sweet Lord," another calm, peaceful devotional, was sung by Oteil and backed up by the bass. Matt returned to add a sweet layer of piano, and Mark laid back with a series of chirping lines. The next song, "No More Doubt," was the prettiest of the evening. A bit of the Hendrix vibe still hung in the air, lending the proceedings a slight "Little Wing" feel. Oteil and Mark teamed for a thick main riff that seemed to rise into the air, step by step as Paul sang for "You can rest assured there'll be no worry, no more heartache, no more doubt."
       Toward the end of the song, the music seemed to fade away into the air, leaving Matt's smooth keyboard work to take the churning, minor key tune to another plane. Mark followed it with a guitar solo that alternated between the rough and the refined, complicating the emotions of the song. Then the ascending riff returned and brought this fine number to a rocking close.
       Anchored by Oteil and Chris, "Rooster" marked a return to more familiar, earthier territory. It was a funky piece centered around a mid-paced lick played by Oteil, Mark and Matt, beating its way along as Paul belted out a warning, telling someone close to change in a hurry before it was too late.
       Always gracious, Oteil then took a moment to thank the venue and dedicate the evening to America's soldiers and veterans. "Whether you agree with the war or not," he said, "our neighbors are out there losing their lives, baby, this one is for them."
       "Satisfaction Guaranteed," featuring a slamming start and another Aquarium Rescue Unit-style triple-team riff, brought the set to a close with a dose of tough funk rock, with brief releases in the chorus. The crowd stood again in appreciation as the band left the stage. But given the hour, it was still something of a surprise that they returned a few minutes later. The Peacemakers let it all hang out with a galloping version of the ARU staple "Stand Up." "Stand Up" featured Oteil's most unrestrained bass playing of the entire night, a relentless combination of slaps, pops and rapid-fire craziness both during the verses.
       When you have Michael Jordan on your team, you know he's going to take over at the end of the game. And that's just what Oteil did during "Stand Up," taking a jaw-dropping, four-minute-long solo of fat chords and high-speed shuddering runs as all ten fingers flew about the bass. It was a fearsome attack from the low register. Even Les Claypool might not have had anything to say after this one.
       The giant solo blended back into the song's theme one more time, and then the show was over. It was past 1 a.m. on Sunday as the band said their final goodnights and the crowd walked out into the Chicago morning to find its way home.

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