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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Try Him One More Time

HE’S A FREQUENT VISITOR to the Capital Region’s Egg, more often than not with his full band in tow. When David Bromberg returns for an 8 PM performance Friday, Nov. 9, he’s not even necessarily planning to play anything the hardcore fan hasn’t heard before. But it’s far more accurate to note that he isn’t planning anything at all.

“I guess I’m in a rut,” he says, speaking from his Delaware-based violin shop, “but I like it. And we’re constantly adding new tunes and new kinds of tunes.” But as for the performance itself: “I have no idea exactly what I’ll be doing. I’ll probably do some from the ‘Use Me’ CD, but I don’t plan my sets.”

Butch Amiot and David Bromberg
Photo by James Martin
And he’s inclined to greet shouted suggestions with an amusing reminder that it remains up to him to program the set. “Here’s the thing,” he explains. “When I finish a tune, I get a feeling for the kind of energy I need to use for the next one. When people shout stuff at me, it interrupts that process and makes it harder for me. I can’t go from whatever it was I was doing to whatever it is they’re demanding and do it well.”

Bromberg was a guitar-playing prodigy who frequented the Greenwich Village basket houses in the 1960s, playing alongside the folk scene’s up-and-comers and soon he was the first-choice guitarist on recordings by Bob Dylan, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Carly Simon, Tom Paxton and many more – at the same time developing his own songwriting chops, writing solo and with the likes of George Harrison.

He played across all musical categories, paying little attention to pigeonholes of styles. How did he develop this diversity? “I used to think it came from being a guitar player and wanting to play nearly everything I ever heard played on guitar,” he says, “so that means I wanted to play in all kinds of different styles. But what I discovered after thinking about it for a while is that my favorite music has always been vocal music. I love singing, and so I think it comes from that as well.

“I learned a lot from a guy named Jody Stecher, a brilliant singer, and a fine guitarist, mandolinist, fiddler – a great musician. He turned me on to many different singers, like the Pennywhistlers, a group of seven housewives from the Bronx who sang Balkan folksongs – beautiful stuff. And Jody was one of the producers of a field recording of Bahamian music, a great LP called ‘The Real Bahamas’ that’s one of my desert island records.

“By myself, I found and fell in love with Ray Charles, and Etta Baker, and John Lee Hooker, and Bill Monroe, and Ralph Stanley. We all hear a great diversity of music all the time. The thing is, I liked it all.”

He worked as a solo performer and soon began fronting his own big band, a versatile ensemble with a sound, he says, that “grew kind of organically. I’d love to brag and say I had this vision, but as I heard what people could do, it suggested ways in which to use them. Things were organized – to the extent that they were organized at all – to show off the particular talents of the people that I played with. And I’ve been playing with a lot of them for very, very many years. Some people have left the band because they physical couldn’t travel any more, and some left the band because they’re no longer living – and that’s about the only way that people leave.”

Bromberg himself took a hiatus in 1980, when the grind of touring proved too oppressive. He and his wife, sculptor (and frequent backup singer) Nancy Josephson moved to Chicago, where he attended the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making. He began dealing in fine violins, and opened his shop in Wilmington about a decade ago.

“I learned to make violins so that I could learn to look at them. My interest was and is in the identification of violins, so understanding the methods of construction is a great asset in discovering the different techniques used by different makers.” He’s considered the world’s expert on American violins “because nobody else ever looked at them,” he says. “But that’s my hobby. My business is in Italian, French, German, Dutch, Belgian, and English violins.”

After a 22-year break, he began playing again regularly and found a more easygoing approach to the business of touring. And there was another boon: “My singing improved. I learned to sing much better. And, even more recently, my singing took another huge leap when I got three stents in an artery that had an 85 percent blockage. All of a sudden there was so much more power in my voice that I was astounded. I went from a really poor blood flow to a really good blood flow, and it gave me strength – and it’s just logical, it’s what happens to everyone who has this happen.”

Since his return, he’s produced two CDs. The Grammy-nominated “Try Me One More Time” features only Bromberg’s voice and guitar, and prompted the San Francisco Chronicle’s Joel Selvin to term it “A flawless set of solo country blues performances ... a jaw-dropping tour de force.”

For the latest CD, “Use Me,” Bromberg invited a variety of musical friends to do as the title suggests, and use him they did. John Hiatt wrote “Ride On Out a Ways,” which they perform together, and the disc also includes songs and performances by Dr. John, Widespread Panic, Levon Helm, Linda Ronstadt, Los Lobos, Vince Gill and more.

Bromberg’s band for the Albany performance will include John Payne, reeds; Peter Ecklund, trumpet and cornet; Butch Amiot, bass; Josh Kanusky, drums; Nate Grower, fiddle; Mark Cosgrove, guitar and mandolin; and Nancy Josephson, background singing. Opening for the band are folk duo Mike & Ruthy.

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