Track By Track: Oteil Burbridge _Water in the Desert_

Dean Budnick on December 2, 2017

“Every song this album is about love in one way or another,” Oteil Burbridge explains of his latest record, Water in the Desert. The nine originals capture the emotion in its many iterations, exploring the challenges and heartaches of interpersonal connection, as well as the moments of pure bliss.

While as of late, the bass player has found himself in new musical climes through his work in Dead & Company, that milieu is not reflected in the material on Water in the Desert, which he composed nearly a decade ago. “I had just taken my band off the road and began to make an effort to spend way more time at home,”he recalls. “I had just met my wife, Jess, and, when I realized how happy I was at home, I didn’t want to be on the road all the time anymore. So I stopped solo touring. I started writing those songs right after we met but, as life progressed, I kept delaying finishing them. In my defense, we did move three times and have a baby, but I finally just decided to put it out [in order] to be able to move on to the next one. My head is in a very different place now, but it is an accurate picture of my mindset at that time in my life, and it was indeed a precious time to me.”
Burbridge acknowledges that he can be self-critical in assessing his studio efforts, even as he identifies some of the progress he’s made over the course of his solo recording career, which began with 1998’s Love of a Lifetime and includes The Family Secret (2003) and Believer (2005). “I’m never happy with any of my records. I’m too judgmental of so many little things,” he reveals. “The live ones seem to turn out better, as far as what I’m looking for in music. There’s something about the energy of being put on the spot and not having the choice to change any of it later that puts you in the magic zone. But I had an amazing group of people on this record, and that certainly translates when you hear it. There was a good feeling in the studio because of the people that were participating, and you can feel that when you listen to it. Music is all about the feeling it gives you, so in that sense, I’m very happy with it. And though I’m no Joni Mitchell or Robert Hunter, my lyrics are better than [they were on] my last two records. I’m not a poet, but I have things on my mind that I feel are more meaningful than the usual materialistic shallow stuff I hear—what Cornel West refers to as ‘bling bling, g-string.’”
Burbridge enlisted a series of Atlanta-based musicians to join him on Water in the Desert. First and foremost, the roster includes his older sibling Kofi, who appears on keyboards and flute. Oteil explains, “I didn’t want it to be a ‘bass guitar’ record. I wanted to feature Kofi and the singers more than myself, honestly. I wanted people to hear the Burbridge Brothers in their natural element.” The pair were joined by guitarist Dave Yoke, drummers Lil’ John Roberts and Sean O’Rourke, and Miguel Atwood Ferguson on strings. Producer David Ryan Harris, Alfreda Gerald and Mark Rivers handled most of the vocal duties, while Burbridge himself stepped in for the LP’s moving final track.

“Water in the Desert” came about because I was on the hunt for an older style of gospel music that I only had heard on records. But I lived in Birmingham, Ala., so I knew it still had to be around there somewhere. A friend turned me on to this church called First Baptist Church of Kingston. The Pastor, Rev. T.N. Miller brought me to tears every time I went there. “Water in the Desert” is my tribute to that church and Rev. James Cleveland, The Fairfield Four, Aretha Franklin and all the other gospel artists whose music fed me so much spiritually back then. Lyrically, it is simply stating that the act of loving another person, God, whoever, is what heals best. It is about action as much as—or more than belief. Abraham Joshua Heschel said that when he marched with Dr. King in the civil rights movement, he was “praying with his legs.” It’s about action. Alfreda is amazing on this song—truly amazing. Wait till you hear her do it live.
This song is about a man and a woman who are both cheating on their spouses with each other. They’re both chasing after something that they already have. It’s about the futility of the destructive side of desire, about love left behind. Most of us chase after what we already have at some point in our lives, though it takes different forms. It could be anything from cocaine to donuts. Mark Rivers sings this one beautifully. I love the cool organ part that Kofi does in the verses too. I don’t know how he pulls the draw bars on the organ in such perfect rhythm, but it’s a cool effect.
This is my tribute to maybe my biggest hero, Elvin Jones, who’s most well-known as John Coltrane’s drummer. I got to meet him twice and he was an absolute angel. When I think of Elvin, the ocean comes to mind. That’s the drummer he is. This is also the last thing I ever recorded with Col. Bruce Hampton. How fitting—he loved Elvin as much as I did. Kofi and Lil’ John are truly transcendent on this track, and Col. Bruce adds the lightning to the crashing waves of the ocean just perfectly. It’s like Elvin with Sonny Sharrock and the Burbridge Brothers! I guess this song is about the love of nature and one’s heroes.

This started out as an experiment where I was trying to transition, harmonically, from one section to another using seemingly unrelated key centers, but linking them together by having at least one note in common. If done right, then I could write a simple melody that would connect the two sections so they wouldn’t seem so disparate. From so many years of hearing jazz and classical music growing up, my ear wants to hear different harmonies than the regular ones you hear all the time in popular music. Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind & Fire are experts at this. Most people have no idea how incredibly stretched out the harmony is because the melody is so singable and simple. Lyrically, it’s about encouraging someone who is paralyzed by self-doubt. “If you don’t believe in yourself, then let me believe enough for the both of us—at least just for right now.” Again, Alfreda brings me to tears with this one. Miguel Atwood Ferguson did a beautiful string arrangement on this song as well.

This song is my homage to the Atlanta funk-rock band Mother’s Finest. They were a predecessor to bands like Living Colour, but with a female vocalist singing lead. Joyce Kennedy is a force of nature like Alfreda. Coincidentally, Alfreda was into Mother’s Finest like Kofi, Sean and me. Their bassist, Jerry “Wyzard” Seay, is one of my earliest heroes. Fortunately, I got to meet him in Atlanta back when I was playing with Alfreda, and he was a total sweetheart as well. Instead of a guitar solo, we ran Kofi’s flute through some distortion and let him rip the solo. It sounds so cool. Lyrically, this is about finding the courage to be your true self, even if you’re afraid of how others might judge you. It’s about self-love.

I was going to sing this one, but David Ryan Harris put his magic voice on it. He stayed pretty true to the way I had sung it, but did it way better. I thought, “That’s what I meant. It just didn’t come out of my mouth like that!” This song is about someone that pushes away love because they think they don’t deserve it.
The verse in this song was influenced by Steely Dan. Walter Becker’s recent passing was sad for us folks that grew up with his music. The intro, outro and chorus are definitely more prog-rock/fusion influenced, and the vamp at the end is more akin to Chaka Khan. It seems that it’s a thoroughly schizophrenic song! I guess it’s fitting because it’s about a woman who finally comes to terms with being gay, but her religious parents can’t accept it. They’re having trouble merging the seemingly incongruent pictures together.

This song is “Oteil Gospel.” It’s what gospel music is like on my home planet. Mark Rivers sang this one. He’s put in some serious time singing in church. It is about my mother, all mothers, Mother Earth and the sadly ignored feminine face of God—Genesis 1:26.

This song is my most adventurous musically, though it may not sound like it. The harmony is unusual, but the melody ties it all together. I sung this one, for better or worse. I didn’t want to sing on the record, but I ended up doing it because it was the only way I could really capture the true loneliness that the song is about in the way I heard it in my head. I guess it’s because I lived it.
I wrote “Until You Come Home” when my wife was living and working in Rwanda. She moved to Africa for the first year that we were married. She was in dangerous places where genocides and massacres were real. It was brutal for me. She could tell you stories that would blow your mind. I did learn to play the banjo that year, though. I needed to be a beginner at something again so I didn’t go crazy. Back at home, I was finding it impossible to transform that much loneliness into solitude. Having a child will make you appreciate solitude, but Nigel wasn’t in the picture yet and it was desolate. But she was chasing her dream and I’m glad she did it. It has made both of our lives so much richer.