My favorite memories of David Bromberg are from the Philadelphia Folk Festival in the early 1970s. Bromberg would play every year and, at the festival's end on Sunday night on the big stage, he would always put together David Bromberg's Philadelphia Folk Festival All Stars comprised of his band and a smattering of the weekend's performers.
One year the All Stars did a version of "Sharon," a song about a carnival hootchie-cootchie dancer with a chorus that went, "Oh Sharon, what do you do to these men? You know the same rowdy crowd that was here last night is back again." His back-up singers were Bonnie Raitt, Diane Davidson and Maria Muldaur and Maria, in green toreador pants and an electric orange halter top, did the "dance of Sharon" during the instrumental break. Definitely a memory for cold winter nights.
One sunny festival afternoon I was walking across a field just outside the fence that separated off a small performers' area from the rest of the crowd. Just on the performers' side of the fence I saw Bromberg walking and suddenly I heard someone calling "David! David!" To my right a young couple came running up as he stopped. As they ran over to him, the young long-haired guy stopped about 12 feet short, as his blonde girlfriend ran up to Bromberg and handed him a cardboard sign and stood next to him. He looked down at the sign he was now holding (which said "Hello Donna") and then looked up just as the guy snapped his picture. The girl grabbed the sign back and they ran off, laughing. I looked at him, the only witness to the event, and smiled. Bromberg shook his head and walked away.
Many people don't "get" David Bromberg. In an interview once he argued that he was part of a real but unrecognized genre that emerged during the early to mid-1960s - he called it the Jewish kid in his room in his parent's upper middle-class house in the suburbs listening to Son House genre. One reason I believe it's never been given official status has to do with a notion of authenticity in music, a notion that is impenetrably tangled (and even more confused) that I may devote some time to in the future but just don't have the time for just now.
Like Stephan Grossman, Jorma Kaukonen and a handful of other "folk revival" acoustic guitar players, David Bromberg spent some time with folk/blues legend, Reverend Gary Davis, taking lessons when they were offered and doing some odd jobs. But, and this is a real key to understanding Bromberg I think, where Grossman became the #1 restorationist of his generation of folk guitarists, Bromberg - much like Gary Davis before him - took influences from all over the place and eventually developed his own voice.
Look at almost any Stephan Grossman album and the notes that accompany every track will tell you how impressed you should be that he is able to play this piece exactly like [fill in the blank with any Delta bluesman]. Like the members of Early Music Ensembles, Grossman seeks to become invisible, to suppress any identity of his own under layers of studied technique. The problem is, however, that, unlike the music of the 15th Century of which no actual recordings exist, Skip James, Fred McDowell, and Mance Lipscomb did record and there isn't a Mississippi John Hurt song that Grossman performs I wouldn't rather listen to Mississippi John Hurt perform.
Anyone who knows David Bromberg's music also knows that he stepped away from his recording and touring career almost twenty years ago and has spent that time studying violin making and repair (and, in the process, has become a leading US dealer and authority on violins). A few years back he was lured away from his long-time home in Chicago (Bromberg, like me, is a Philadelphia native) by the city of Wilmington, Delaware, and has set up his violin shop in an old building in a part of the city that has undergone significant restoration and has become the center for the arts in Wilmington.
Bromberg and band still play a handful of shows each year, mostly on the East Coast. A couple years ago I saw him at the Keswick Theatre, a small 1300 seat venue in Glenside, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. The theatre, originally a combination vaudeville/movie house first opened in 1928 and hosted such legends as Stepin' Fetchit, Paul Robeson and Ina Ray Hutton with her all-girl band. Designed by the architect Horace Trumbauer (who also created the Philadelphia Museum of Art), if you ever have an opportunity to see a show there, take it.
Bromberg has played with a long list of artists over the years; a whole crate of records that he’s a featured sideman on sits behind me as I write this. The title of his last studio album, 1990’s Sideman Serenade, was in recognition of just that very thing. Fans of unreleased Bob Dylan still hope for the eventual official release of the legendary Bromberg Sessions of which a handful of tracks have surfaced among collectors.
For a long time Bromberg was lead acoustic guitarist in a duo with Jerry Jeff Walker and a regular on the club and coffeehouse circuit in the early 70s. When I saw him at the Keswick he did a beautiful version of Walker’s “Mister Bojangles” about which he told this story:
Jerry Jeff liked to think he was able to hold his liquor but such was not the case. The song is about an encounter with the famous dancer in a drunk tank in New Orleans in the early 1960s. However, Bromberg explained, there are some problems with that story. First, the real “Mister Bojangles,” Bill Robinson, was a refined and elegant gentleman who had most likely never seen the inside of a drunk tank. Second, the jails of New Orleans were segregated at the time of the story and Jerry Jeff would not have been housed with black prisoners. New Orleans had ten thousand street performers and one of every three street dancers went by the name “Mister Bojangles” so Jerry Jeff was most likely writing about an encounter with a drunken white street dancer of unknown ability.
None of this makes the song any less impressive however.
But I digress.
Try Me One More Time (on the Appleseed label out of West Chester, PA) is what a David Bromberg album would sound like if it was produced by Rick Rubin using the same minimalist approach he took with Johnny Cash and The American Recordings. Just voice and one acoustic guitar – in fact, the guitar that David uses on every track is his Martin M-42 David Bromberg Signature Edition, a rosewood bodied guitar with specification similar to the Martin OOO and OM models of the 1930s.
The album collects 16 blues and folk tunes; one original, several traditional, and the rest by writers like Bob Dylan, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, and two by Reverend Gary Davis.
The most distinct impression I am left with after playing this record a half dozen times or so now is that it is the sound of a man who is comfortable in his own skin, someone who knows who he is. These are enviable and powerful traits.
I’ve always argued that there are three dimensions that musicians (and all artists) must struggle to find a balance among. First, there is an intellectual ability – knowledge of music theory, harmony, chord construction, substitution; the vocabulary you bring to your playing. A novelist who is enormously creative, but has a vocabulary of fewer than 100 words will be as limited as a creative musician who knows 4 or 5 chords. Second are the physical skills necessary to actually play the complex progressions you understand. In an interview Bromberg was asked about learning to flat-pick complex jigs and reels. “Each one you learn from scratch, starting slowly and building speed. I wish I could tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t.”
Lastly, there is an emotional dimension, the immediate access to one’s emotional life. This is the feeling in the music, the heart, the injection of personality.
The jazz fusion guitarist, Al Dimeola, had enormous skills and ability in the first two areas. But Chet Atkins, normally a very kind man, once described him as “all dressed up with nowhere to go.”
Not so with David, and in particular not so on this album.
The material here is presented with a great sense of confidence. It is never flashy for the sake of flash, yet his finger-style work and slide are both played with an enviable mastery. As a guitarist, Bromberg plays with both a fluidity and assuredness, never afraid to add his own stylistic touches to the traditional tunes or interject his sense of humor wherever he sees fit. On the songs where he shouts, he shouts as if he wants to raise the roof; a booming and surprisingly loud bellow of a voice.
Bromberg reworks Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry” into more of a straight-ahead blues, slowing it down ever-so-slightly and changing it enough in the process that it takes a moment before you’ll recognize the song.
It may be a tired metaphor but it just seems appropriate – the overall feel of this album is like a really comfortable and really well made suit of clothes. Like that, this is a record I don’t think I will tire of putting on.