The Ogden Theatre is a 1600 capacity venue in the Capitol Hill district of Denver and although its surroundings leave much to be desired, the place still brings out the magic for those who enter its historic doors. Originally opened in 1917, it got it start as did many theaters of that era as a movie house and a locale for vaudeville performances. Cinema was its main draw for decades until its almost unfortunate end in the early 90’s, when it was slotted to be demolished. Luckily for concert patrons, it was saved and converted to the notable music venue it is today, hosting many mid-level bands on their way to success and intimate shows of those at the top looking for the opportunity to play to the smaller crowd on a special night. October 20th was one such evening.
On Thursday, fans of the jam had the rare opportunity to catch one of the latest formations put together by amaza-bassist Oteil Burbridge and the result was nothing short of spectacular. Billed as Oteil and Friends, the group consisted of guitar wizard Steve Kimock, southern shred Duane Betts, organ maestro “The Reverend” Melvin Seals, soul singer Lamar Williams Jr., and powerhouse drummer Johnny Morgan Kimock, and although the supergroup dynamic can often come off as unrehearsed, this outing was tight, magical, and full of the fire that everyone in the house hoped for.
Arriving at about half past six with a seven o’clock door time, the box office reported that there were still plenty of tickets to be had. This aspect made one wonder if this would be one of those shows that was terribly undersold, which in light of the players, would have been a travesty of afterthought and a lack of motivation by the Mile High City. For those holding the dream of the rail and initiating the line out front earlier that afternoon, they could have cared less how many tickets were sold as they were pumped and ready to have their minds blown and more musical memories made. Doors opened and smiling face after smiling face flowed in through the tiny lobby and made for the stools of the balcony or the front row, there being a noticeable distinction between the two that seemed to be age related.
As the minutes passed, the influx of fans remained constant and when the published start time had arrived, the Ogden was ninety percent or more filled with people sharing stories, hopeful anticipations, and good vibes all around. The vacant stage was bathed in deep purple light and the smoke machines were running in overtime and when the house music finally fell silent, the all-too-ready audience filled the place with a warm welcome as the band entered from stage right.
“HOW YOU GUYS DOING?”, queried Oteil, who was quickly met with a short burst of excitement.
Bringing everything on line with a meandering tuning jam, the first set got started with the sweet groove of “No More Doubt”. Originally penned by Paul Henson and released on the 2005 Oteil and The Peacemakers’ album Believer, this one certainly seemed to be made for Steve, the bearded musical giant wasting no time taking flight over the structure. Oteil commanded the guttural vocals and at the midsection, Duane tore through his solo like a maniac, all the while maintaining his deadpan stare, letting his fingers convey all the emotion. This tune showed the range of the conglomerate early on, as the piece shifts from funky groove to punchy rock and roll to a jazz format, all of which came off without a hitch.
Following the soul inferno closer of the opener, the band transitioned without pause into Gregg Allman’s “Dreams”. With the familiar opening notes initiated, Lamar Williams, Jr. strolled onstage, grinning and dressed to the nines. His vocal offering was spot on and could be easily described as channelling Gregg himself from the afterlife: raspy, powerful, intoxicating. Twenty-two minutes later and at the close of the two song opener, everyone knew we were in for a great night.
Taking a moment to introduce Lamar, the band turned it on again with the Little Milton original and JGB cover “That’s What Love Will Make You Do”. Melvin’s voice and fingers took the helm on this one and the organ solo certainly turned this Thursday into a Sunday, as he employed the Leslie grind to wash the audience free of their sins and fill them with reverberating swirls of joy and baptism by fire. Hitting the second stanza, Melvin encouraged the audience who had already been singing along to join in, letting the masses take over the lyrical duties as he just sat back and scanned the room. Closing with the classic big finish, Melvin smiled widely out over the crowd from behind his reflective shades, appreciating the accompaniment.
Oteil chimed in,”The Reverend Melvin!”
Translated as “The Brothers” from French, “Les Brers in A Minor” shifted the energy into an upward spiral and got the whole room moving. Originally penned by Dickey Betts, Duane did this one justice and would certainly have made his dad proud. The upbeat tempo and numerous changes make this one a sprint as well as a marathon and the friends ran it through to the end.
Slowing things a bit, the Nix and Penn Memphis soul tune “Like a Road” was the next one up. Oteil preached as Melvin’s organ put patrons back into the pews with this spiritual selection. The delivery was heartfelt, genuine, and reflected once again that Oteil is just as talented vocally as he is in instrumentation. Steve and Duane traded accents as Melvin towed the line of the frame, all of it blending oh so well and reminding those old enough of the good ol’ days of seeing the Jerry Garcia Band live.
Digging into the Allman Brothers canon again, “Come and Go Blues” brought Lamar back to center stage to give another expert reading. Whereas Melvin’s talent dominated “Like a Road”, this one was full throttle guitars, Steve, Duane, and Oteil giving it over to all things stringed. The vocal portion of the music plodded along in its simple score, but hitting the instrumental middle, the tune took an octave change and the piece and the room began to rise. Portions of this song carry a similar progression to the Mind Left Body Jam of Grateful Dead yore and made this fan hopeful that the group would take it in that direction, but alas, all they did was melt faces and destroy expectations as Steve and Duane took turns making Oteil peer down each end of the stage with a smile as wide as the stage itself, dancing in place and getting giddy.
To close the set, the band kept the energy high and left everyone up on the good foot with Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight”. Oteil held vocal command here with the audience getting involved in many call and response moments. Johnny rumbled and exploded through this one and had everyone feeling his amorous illumination. Oteil threw out band intros mid-song and everyone inside was happy to recognize the friends with applause, whistling, and general deafening appreciation. Oteil took time to show off another dynamic of his talent, synching his uplifting spiritual scat with a stunning staccato of smoldering bass runs that just drove the room to the edge of ecstasy and elation.
Like the first set, set two started with a one-two punch, beginning with a southern turn in the opener “Hot ‘Lanta”. This Allman Brothers staple was in their repertoire since 1971, but strangely enough never appeared on a studio album. Melvin got first turn at the solo and infected it with his own flare, deviating tastefully from the standard delivery. Duane stepped right into the gap and pointed that rocket skyward and hit the afterburners. Steve turned to his pedals and got weird with it. The standard drum breakdown was anything but and Johnny shuffled and hit his way through it before counting back into the head without anyone missing a step. At the dissolution of the instrumental, everyone slipped into the upbeat tempo of Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight” and motivated many to join in with the dance party going on throughout the venue. Steve put the bluegrass infusion to good work and played the familiar piece with the metal slide, giving it that authentic twangy feel of Garcia’s interpretation with Old and In The Way. Melvin lit the room from the inside out with great organ work and kept the joy coming for both audience and performer alike.
The JGB favorite “Cats Down Under The Stars” took spot three and the band moved through the lyrics without interlude, saving it all for the explosive end. Kimock literally fanned the guitar inferno, lighting all eyes watching until this one ended in an ashen heap of emberous memory.
Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” was led by Melvin with Lamar and Oteil adding harmony. For these ears, Melvin’s vocal take sounded much like the inflection and meter that Bobby Weir often employs during his versions. Steve took the first solo and it was easy to feel the emotional connection to this piece that has served so many artists, stages, and sets as a point of contemplative reflection. Melvin’s solo was soft and bittersweet, tugging at the heart strings of everyone listening.
“Knockin’” transitioned into The Peacemaker track “Too Many Times” from the 2003 album The Family Secret. This one showcased the jazz side of Oteil, and this side was warmly received. The dark tune meandered from gentle to unsettling and was certainly regarded as one of the highlights of the night. Duane got edgy and gritty, bending over backwards almost as far as the notes he was buckling. Steve’s portion was more angular, and Johnny followed the patriarch into the spatial gap, tastefully shifting between accent and drive, copper, and skin. Melvin fueled the ambient while Oteil moaned through the murky depths, color, and light dancing in strands like the parts played. These thirteen minutes of aural delight seemed much, much longer.
Following what seemed like a technical difficulty going unnoticed by the audience or just an observation by Oteil, Oteil chimed in, “You know sometimes when the spirit takes hold, the equipment can’t take it. Don’t let them tell you spiritual things don’t affect things on the physical plane.”
Putting the pep back into the step, a great take on the Garcia / Hunter original “They Love Each Other” got everyone back to the dance floor. Duane hit this one as though he had been playing the GD number for a good long while. Melvin stepped to the plate and gave up a strong solo that carried so many elements to it. Steve shifted to the pedal steel, slowed it down, and blurted small splats of flare and accent to the delight of all. This version also got played in its original format, including a section of lyrics and a key change that were omitted from the Dead’s interpretation, as well as many others.
Dickey Betts’ “Blue Sky” was up next and was appropriately sang by Duane, making this the only song of the night that he would take on vocally. Duane took the first solo and worked the entirety of the guitar neck, leaving no note unplayed. The closing portion had Duane and Kimock synced up for the final climb and when the two reached the top of the mountain, the band dropped into “Franklin’s Tower” for the set closer. Steve circled back to the slide and alternated sections with Duane, the two turning on the theme like a double helix without end. Johnny kept it poppy while Oteil played off his straight rhythm in double time, clawing and clamoring up and down the frets like a myth on a mission.
Although there was no encore, everyone got two and half hours of first class playing by a group with an incredible heritage and connection to the modern jam world. Whether progeny or originator, the whole of this amalgam worked perfectly, was well worth the price of admission, and exceeded all expectations. The group was tight and made the playing sound and look all too easy and came off as fresh and innovative. The term friend is defined as a person with whom one knows and has a bond of mutual affection and as long as Oteil has friends like these, the world is certainly a better place.