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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

David Bromberg and His All-American Music

“I”M NOT GONNA GET worried about this funky AC,” David Bromberg declared, referring to the electrical problems that were plaguing the lights and monitor speakers. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll unplug and do this acoustic. We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again.”

Mark Cosgrove and David Bromberg
at the Keswick Theater, Glenside, PA
March 19, 2011 | Photo by Mike Thut
With one exceptional moment, he didn’t have to. He and three other outstanding players and singers turned in a 90-minute set that was as good as anything I’ve seen Bromberg do – and I’ve seen a lot.

Most people go to the beach for sun and relaxation. For me, it turns the distraction level down and I’m able to write more effectively. But I can’t leave all of my enthusiasms behind.

Having just settled in for a few days in the northern Cape Cod town of Truro, I was startled to see a streetside sandwich board advertising a concert by David Bromberg nearby. I’ve seen Bromberg perform over many years in many venues with ensembles of varying size. I’ve written about his shows. His website has prominently featured one such review.

Yet to find him and his quartet a scant few miles up the road . . . it was too tempting. Anticipating the inevitable, I phoned the venue the afternoon of the concert and was told it was sold out. “But you can try at the box office if you like,” I was told.

No need to. I’m on vacation. It’s my wife’s and my anniversary. We can spend a quality evening together. And so, predictably, an hour and a half before the show I stood at the box office window, scoring a pair of tickets.

The Payomet Performing Arts Center sits on a road that leads to an abandoned Air Force station that once was a cold war surveillance stalwart. It’s a large tent that seats about 400, with a charmingly weatherbeaten wooden box office structure nearby.

Bromberg’s appearance was part of a season that includes stops by such artists as Roseanne Cash, John Mayall, and Rickie Lee Jones, and an ongoing performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by a cast of young actors.

The tent itself screams Long Island wedding, with a small stage at one end facing several rows of cheap folding chairs. And the seats themselves are section-priced, although the side seats into which Susan and I settled gave as comfortable a view of the stage as the higher-priced section in the center.

A hard-kicking “Lover Please Come Home” was the opening number, complete with a ragged-edged Bromberg vocal in a voice that’s compelling and unique without ever straying near the brink of pretty. And the song set a pattern we’d see throughout the show: a mandolin solo by the amazing flatpicker Mark Cosgrove, a fiddle solo by Nate Grower, and energetic guitar licks by Bromberg before bringing it all home either with another vocal chorus or, as in this case, changing key and swinging into an even upper-tempo playout that showed off Grower as a burn-ass mandolin player too. At the end of the number, Bromberg also wrung daredevil licks from a mandolin, and the sound of all three mandolinists – with Butch Amiot laying a bass bed behind them – made for a marvelous texture.

That was the acoustic-instrument setup. For the second number, Bromberg and Cosgrove switched to electric guitars and, with Grower back on fiddle, tore into Muddy Waters’ “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had,” featuring a sweet bottleneck solo by Bromberg.

Highlights of the set included Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon,” sung with compelling harmony by Bromberg, Amiot, and Cosgrove, Keb Mo’s “Digging,” written for Bromberg’s recent album “Use Me,” an angry anthem to our oil dependency, and “Tongue,” played as an encore but with, if anything, a fresh surge of energy.

Grower’s fiddle work seemed to grew more complex and affecting with each number. By the time he got to “Digging,” he was in a place of soaring double-stops with effective glissandos. When he went into full-force-fiddlin’ mode at the very end of the set – in a set of fiddle tunes enhancing the end of “New Lee Highway Blues” – he was a monster.

When Cosgrove was turned loose for a guitar solo (“And it better be fuckin’ good,” declared Bromberg as he left the stage), he paid tribute to his guitar hero, Clarence White, with “Alabama Jubilee,” in which the melody was put through more paces than an element in a Bach fugue, and with equally impressive results.

Cosgrove and Bromberg teamed for “Boggy Road to Milledgeville,” Bromberg’s whimsical take on “Arkansas Traveler,” which set them to a frenzy of lick-swapping before they combined for the fiendish melody-in-naked-thirds flatpicking finale.

On his shortchanged-for-the-Grammy album “Try Me One More Time,” Bromberg featured only  himself and his guitar. We got tastes of that with a rendering of the wistful title song, as well as Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen,” at moments of which the guitar’s voice becomes indistinguishable from the singer’s.

The exceptional moment mentioned at the top of this piece came at the concert’s end, the second encore: “Roll On, John.” I’ve seen it before, but it never loses its effectiveness. Bromberg and the others left the stage and played and sang the song with no amplification. Sadly, it galvanized all the audience photographers into action, who rudely besieged the players with their goddamned flashes. Happily, the song is so endearing, and was so endearingly performed, that you almost forgave the selfish idiots.

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