David Bromberg resurfaces after two decades to sound better than ever and has new album packed with blues
If a star quarterback returns after retiring over twenty years ago, there aren't many who would bet on his success. If a world champion prize fighter took to the ring again after two decades, better have the ambulance ready. If Jesus came back from the dead, he might have a lot of catching up to do before he was ready for prime time. But if you found a Stradivarius violin in the attic, chances are it would sound pretty good.
David Bromberg is like one of those fine instruments. As his friend Jerry Jeff Walker stated about him, "The reason man created stringed instruments. David touched them with a lover’s fingers and they moaned that true love right back at him. Wood and wire and flesh spoke.”
So how does one explain the re-emergence of Bromberg? After 11 albums (a new one out this week, "The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing But the Blues") and constant touring during the 1970s and 1980s with a lot of humor and instrumental verve, this noted master of guitar, fiddle, dobro, mandolin, pedal steel guitar decided he was burned out on the whole business, broke up his band, and retreated into a life of relative obscurity. But alas, that's a media-generated idea: that someone disappears when they aren't in the public life. He was simply off the public radar. But now, at age 70, he's back on the road.
"I was really doing well," he says of that time during the late 1980s when he broke up the band. "I was working too much without a break. I toured for two years straight and never went home. I realized that when I got off the road I was burnt out, but I didn't realize that until later. I came to the conclusion that I wasn't a musician anymore. When I wasn't performing, I wasn't writing, I wasn't playing on my own. I realized I was I-don't-know-what."
There were some studio credits along the way, as he appeared on other people's records here and there. But he says he wasn't really pursuing life as a musician for some time.
"I didn't play much guitar," he says. "The performing I did was very sporadic. I took 22 years off and I didn't realize I could step back in."
What he did instead was learn how to make violins. First, he enrolled in the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making in Chicago. But he wasn't as interested in knowing how to make violins as he was in trying to identify them. Especially violins made in the United States. Something just clicked in his archival mind about these instruments. He became an avid collector and known expert on violins. He now has a collection of 263 violins made in America, which he has offered to the Library of Congress. And when someone had a violin they needed to identify, Bromberg became the go-to guy.
"How do you tell what they are is what fascinated me," he says. "I started looking at violins, learning how to identify the makers, gaining the knowledge of the different makers. Now, in one small area of the violin world, American-made violins, I'm considered something of an expert."
After moving to Wilmington, Delaware, he opened a retail store and repair shop for violins and other instruments, David Bromberg Fine Violins. The business was part of a revitalization of that part of Wilmington, but it also became a place where Bromberg himself became revitalized.
By the next year, after the mayor of Wilmington had mentioned live music had once been a common offering in that part of town, Bromberg was leading what he called a regular "jam session." As it turned out, he didn't have to travel to play. He just stayed home, and people came to him.
"Some very good musicians started to show up, some of them from a long way away," he says.
Thus began the musical re-education of David Bromberg.
"I learned a whole bunch about singing," he says. "Phoebe Snow gave me some very good advice about singing. During the period I wasn't performing, I took some voice lessons. Now I sing a lot better than I did in the 1970s. I don't have the speed on the guitar that I used to have. That part is gone."
Within five years of moving to Wilmington, and after getting encouragement from the likes of bluegrass players Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson, he was ready to start recording again. He formed the David Bromberg Quintet and returned to the recording world with the 2007 release called, naturally, "Try Me One More Time."
It was nominated for a Grammy.
That was followed by a recording project that started with some playing for fun with John Hiatt, but became a concept Bromberg called "Use Me." He invited a wide variety of artists -- Hiatt, Levon Helm, Los Lobos, Tim O'Brien, Vince Gil, Keb' Mo, Linda Ronstadt -- to suggest songs they wrote for him to cover, and then Bromberg would perform and record them. Then came an opportunity to record with producer Larry Campbell, a longtime friend and former producer and player for Levon Helm and Bob Dylan. The David Bromberg Band emerged with "Only Slightly Mad," which Bromberg says "is an old-time David Bromberg record" since it jumps around from Chicago-style blues to bluegrass, gospel and English drinking songs.
That ability to create shows and records with "too many different styles," as he put it, is why in the past decade Bromberg has earned the nickname "The Godfather of Americana."
"I did not make it (the nickname) up," he laughs. "When I was originally performing, there was no such thing as Americana. Commercial record stores couldn't figure out where to put me. Was I in the rock section, the blues section, the folk section, all the stuff I do. Now all of that is just called Americana, and that's what I was doing for all of those years."
Bromberg is from the generation born at the end of World War II (in 1945 in Philadelphia, later raised in Tarrytown, New York) that was just waiting to discover rock'n'roll by the time he was a teen in the late 1950s. However, he was more attracted to roots music than the mainstream Elvi of his day. He discovered Peter Seeger and the Weavers, and was especially drawn to the blues. A fan of Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters, he discovered a now lesser known blind blues player by the name of Reverend Gary Davis, who he asked to teach him to play guitar while living in Greenwhich Village in New York,
He says he enrolled in Columbia University with the intention of becoming a musicology major, but he never got far enough along in his studies to actually study "musicology."
"I never got to the point where that actually happened," he says.
Nevertheless, he says the exposure to the lively Village music scene in the mid-1960s was essentially a study in numerous kinds of music that he was interested in. Now, in later years, his exposure to all forms of folk, blues, country, jazz and so on has led him to being just as undefinable. How does he remember that fabled time scrambling to make a living as a musician in the Village?
"Even when I got to the Village, people were saying it was not the same as it used to be, and they are still saying it now," he says. "What I remember is the joy that we all got when playing that music. We loved that music and we loved each other."
After a time playing for tips, he became a sought-after studio musician and backing musician for Tom Paxton, Jerry Jeff Walker and Rosalie Sorrels. Then he began to flourish as a hired hand for recording sessions, including for Bob Dylan's "New Morning" and "Self Portrait" LPs.
For the next decade or more, Bromberg played with a who's who of musicians. He got his first record deal in 1970 after getting a chance to play as a stand-in at the Isle of Wight Festival. The performance was so well received that Columbia Records offered him a recording contract. In 1971 his debut album included the song "The Holdup," the product of a collaboration with former Beatle George Harrison. Then he met members of the Grateful Dead, and they played on his next two albums.
At that point, his music was deep into the blues and folk, and his nasally voice (somewhat in the timbre of a jazzy Neil Young) wasn't great but it was laced with a lot of irony and sarcasm. That style, featuring horns and all kinds of other instruments with an increasingly large ensemble, developed a hit with a seven-minute version of "Mr. Bojangles," which interwove stories about traveling with the song's writer, Jerry Jeff Walker.
His humor is a trademark. For example, on "Only Slightly Mad," there's a song about how he'll take a lover back when, among other impossibilities, "they find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." Even his liner notes on the CD are self-deprecating. He describes the song "Strongest Man Alive," about surviving all kinds of challenges where others have not, as "an old English drinking song that I wrote. Well, I wrote it and it sounds like an old English drinking song."
His shows are now like eclectic journeys into his encyclopedic mind, and the songs he chooses are as eccentric as he is.
"What I like in humorists," he says, "are people who take their subjects very seriously, but don't take themselves very seriously."