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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Tangle of Roots

From the Recent Past Dept.: Revisiting a highlight of this year’s concertgoing – David Bromberg at the Cohoes Music Hall, with Austin Shaw’s terrific opening set.


AMERICAN ROOTS MUSIC, as we now term that ferocious confluence of old, weird songs, has had a longtime exponent in David Bromberg, not only as a guitarist and singer but also as one who has penned many a song with that been-singin’-it-for-years flavor.

Suavek Zaniesienko and David Bromberg in Cohoes
Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk
“Diamond Lil,” is an example. It dates at least back to Bromberg’s second LP, released in 1972. “Go ahead and drink your whiskey,” it begins. “Run around and stay high all the time. It's your body and your soul – you save yours and I'll save mine,” then going into an enigmatic refrain that chants “A man should never gamble / More than he can stand to lose.”

The sentiment seems both novel and familiar, which is one secret of the power of the blues. Studies of classic blues songs have found lyric elements that attach themselves to song after song, plucked, as it seems, from the blues-tinted air. Thus, you “woke up this morning” in some manner of distress, typically associated with a now-vanished bedmate.

“When you left, Citrine, baby, was I there – can you tell me how to act because it
felt so unfair.” That’s the plaint that drives Austin Shaw’s similarly enigmatic “Citrine” – but this is a brand-new number, written and performed (as Bromberg’s opening act) by a young man from Santa Cruz who also has steeped himself in tradition and brewed a sound of his own.

Opening is a tough gig. You’re often unexpected, so you’d better be good. Shaw’s trio was chosen by Bromberg, but the two groups cover different ground. Even though he’s not working in the blues idiom, Shaw’s songs sound similar tropes – “Without You in My Life” puts a bright face on a melancholy moment – and is enriched by fine guitar work by Shaw and Kenny Feinstein, who also proved his talent on mandolin, with Brian O’Connell inventively roaming the drum kit.

But where Shaw gets wistful, Bromberg can be downright angry. “Walkin’ Blues,” a Robert Johnson cover, kicked off his own lengthy set, with Mark Cosgrove’s rambunctious electric guitar solo  answered by Bromberg’s bottleneck.

Yet there’s room for hope. Shaw’s “Bask in Your Smile” had an R&B flavor as he asked, “Are you gonna come and brighten up the day? Meet me at the coffee shop – we’ll talk till May – about all the things that we said and done, and all that can go wrong – but didn’t.”

Not only did Bromberg hit the classic Goffin & King anthem “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” but he did it completely unamplified, his quintet at the proscenium edge, all joining in the harmony of the refrain. (Note to the audio guys: This was the best the show sounded all evening.)

If Shaw and company are at the start of a career, the depth and variety of his nine-song set of original songs suggest it ought to be a long one, blossoming without too much boundary.

Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Bromberg reinvents himself every so often, staying true to those thick, gnarled roots, but re-fashioning his means of expression. His current five-player lineup does a deft job covering the material he’s previously performed with a big band and backup singers, and has room for even more fascinating instrumental byplay.

“Diamond Lil,” for example, which came about halfway through the set, featured an energetic dialogue between Cosgrove and Bromberg, inspiring the back-and-forth that followed between fiddler Nate Grower and bassist Suavek Zaniesienko, the last-named the newest member of the ensemble but acting every bit as at home as the others.

Grower, by the way, is so much a wizard of his instrument that I suspect he goes home and plays the unaccompanied Bach sonatas flawlessly. The double-stops he played behind Bromberg’s vocal chorus in Powell St. John’s “I’ll Keep Movin’ On” told even more story than those lyrics.

Drummer Josh Kanusky drove “Dark Hollow” with such infectious energy that the other players were encouraged to lay into multi-chorus solos. “Play one like Bill Monroe!” yelled Bromberg as Cosgrove rounded the corner into chorus number five, and a chorus number six followed. When Bromberg’s turn came around, he let go with spooky chromatics, taking four choruses of his own. And then he turned, as it seemed, on a dime to enjoy the melancholy of Paul Siebel’s “Any Day Woman.”

We had the long, hypnotic story of “Delia,” just Bromberg and his guitar to tell the tale, and the unexpectedly medium-tempo finish of David Wiffen’s “Driving Wheel,” with a four-part-harmony chorus and another Bromberg bottleneck sonata.

And then his own manic “Tongue” as an encore, a classic-sounding blues that left us right where we came in, but more confident that the mistakes of our lives are a shared and tuneful experience.

David Bromberg Quintet

Cohoes Music Hall, May 12, 2017

The Alt, 24 May 2017

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