The Story Of Dust Bowl By: Joe Bonamassa’s producer-Kevin Shirley

Recording “Dust Bowl” – the song! Download It NOW!

OK, the lovely folks at J&R have asked me to write about the recording of the song “Dust Bowl” off the new album of the same name, for the Joe Bonamassa newsletter for the fans… so I’m stuck on an airplane for six hours, so here goes. Here’s the skinny, warts and all!

A little back story – because Joe has such a busy schedule (and getting ever busier with Black Country Communion recordings and tours, and a collaboration with Beth Hart in the works), we have to schedule the recording sessions well in advance. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean he, or anyone else, is prepared or ready for them when the time comes. In my experience, Joe is never ready for them, so we start off each session with a clean sheet of paper. Generally I have a few songs for Joe to cover in my back pocket, like a toothpick, just in case we need them, and very often they become key songs in his repertoire, like “Sloe Gin” and “Stop!”, for examples, but I really would like Joe to write as many as he can – and the strongest songs win out.

Joe, in the process of writing “Dust Bowl”

So we convened in August 2010 at Black Rock on Santorini, in a villa with a recording studio attached, overlooking the rural southern side of the Greek island. It really is gorgeous there, unless you just don’t feel like being there. Now Joe had enjoyed recording his previous album “Black Rock” so much in Santorini, that we had booked the follow up sessions at the same place. Sometimes you just can’t go back. It’s like sex with an ex – it’s just not right. Joe didn’t want to be there this time – he was just too tired and burnt out from a hectic touring schedule, including a show at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, with an entirely different set and new musicians adding some indigenous Greek flavors to the repertoire.

Playing the signature “cowboy” Duane Eddy riffs

Once the guitars had finally arrived, after ferry delays, and Greek customs shenanigans, Joe set up in a little studio room adjacent to the main room with a view out to the dusty volcanic fields covered with low-lying clumps of grape vines. Surrounded by a few guitars, his computer, and a couple of my Greek instruments for a vibe, he started writing – and recording his ideas onto his Mac with the built-in microphone. I left him alone, and went swimming and sight seeing, and checked in on him every now and then, trying not to disturb him. On one such occasion he had written something called Dust Bowl, which was a meandering riff with a basic lyric idea, but really not going anywhere. In any case, I responded positively and said it needed a development and a chorus, and suggest he add something uplifting, like “rising up” or something so it lifted the listeners spirits – (as much as it’s “the Blues”, I grow weary of the-girl-left-me-and-I’m-so-destroyed-lyric!). Give me a break…

And I left – to go get some fresh fish at a seaside taverna or something….. it’s a tough job.

A couple of hours later, I got a text from Joe, enthusing about his writing progress, so I hurried back. After I had left, he had got up, frustrated with himself, and walked back to his room. On his way, he had passed an Eko 12 string, lying on the sofa in the living area, still out of tune from being detuned to travel, and he had written the main riff, that was to be the backbone of the song. I dug it straight up.

So once Anton Fig arrived from New York a week later, we set about recording it. We wanted a very solid feel, almost Tom Petty-ish with the kick drum offering a very stable drive through the whole song. We had put a sketch down with the acoustic 12 string riff, still out-of-tune, and when we tracked the song with the band Joe played the same figure on his signature Les Paul, which is panned to the right on the album mix.
Rick was asked to play something “evocative” in the verses and steer away from being too musical, and had come up with the cool eerie patch, which supplements his padding through the song with a basic string synthesizer.
Musically it doesn’t develop away from the main riff througout the song, so I try and find ways to suggest developing the songs. My job as a producer is not to come up with ideas, but to be a catalyst for the artist to dig as deep as he can. I had just had my birthday on Santorini, and Vangelis, the owner of the car rental agency, had given me a little baglama, a small, traditional Greek stringed instrument, and Joe started working up little “rags” on it to accompany the song, which is the basis for the acoustic “jig” in the choruses.

The band tracking all together – Carmine, Joe, Rick

I had Anton overdub some big percussive shakers through the whole song, and then we dug around with the Duane Eddy sound for a signature to highlight the head. Once those were working we had put a slide solo on the song and that was basically it.

After a few listens (and after Anton had left), I thought the slide solo was too short, so I looped the drum solo section, and wanted to have Joe play a guitar solo that was the sister solo to one he played on “Happier Times” from The Ballad Of John Henry album, which is one of my favorite Joe solos. I know he meant that one, because he doesn’t even remember playing it. He was so emotionally drained, that he poured his heart out in that solo, and I can hear his tears in there…… So, out came the trusty Bonamassa signature Les Paul.

To wrap the song up, I felt the track was just such a cool soundtrack piece, I wanted to keep the dusty, sandy movie I saw in my head going, and I thought some spoken word on the end would just add something to it. No one really had a voice that sounded right, until Peter Van Weelden, the guy who builds some of Joe’s amps and pedals, came to Greece from Holland to service some of Joe’s gear while it was stagnant. When I heard his voice, I thought he was perfect, so we sat around with a microphone while he said all sorts of things, most unprintable, and the few phrases that one can understand around his thick Dutch accent, are what close the story…

But like most of these things, it’s not quite over.

I bumped into the great recording engineer, Ed Cherney, in San Francisco, and he has done such great work with Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones over the years, and I’m a big fan and I thought he would be perfect to mix the song. It’s not something I do very often, to give my productions to someone else to finish, and mostly I’m pretty disappointed with the results, but I thought he’d do a great job. So I sent him the masters, and he did a great mix. But Roy Weisman, Joe’s long-time partner and manager, preferred the rough mix from Greece – and as I wasn’t completely sold on the sonics of the rough mix, especially the soft kick drum, I decided to remix it myself, at my studio in Malibu. I thought my remix was great, but Roy still preferred the original rough mix, so I took them all to New York when I mastered the album with George Marino at Sterling Sound, and I asked him which he preferred, and he liked the rough as well, so that’s the rough mix on the album!

There you go – that’s the basic story of the song, and Roy is never wrong……

Peter Van Weelden and Carmine Rojas – hangin’ out in Santorini!

Kevin Shirley

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