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Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Whole Blues

THREE CHORDS UNDERLIE the Blues, the same three chords that inform much of the more popular examples of western music. In a Blues song they pass in an inflexible order in an inflexible structure. But they’re subject to torture en route. Notes in the chords and notes in the scale are twisted and cry out in pain. The lyrics, too, are fairly inflexible: two lines of iambic pentameter, the first one repeated, that are supposed to rhyme but pay scant attention to Clement Wood’s rhyming rules.

David Bromberg and Nate Grower
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The Blues are the foundation of American music. They have an easy-to-overlook history, but anyone alive who has listened to any amount of music instinctively knows the form, which has saturated every possible genre.

Within the confines of the Blues, there is room, and plenty of it. Room to play with a lyric, room for call-and-response, room for rhythmic figuration. Like all great blues singers (I’ll drop the cap now), David Bromberg is comfortable with all that room around him. He makes a mansion out of it, with vocal inflections and guitar licks that skillfully serve the song. And the rest of his ensemble is right there with him.

Take “Walkin’ Blues,” a number associated with Robert Johnson. “Woke up this morning, feeling 'round for my shoes,” sang Bromberg, in concert at Skidmore College last Friday, as guitarist Mark Cosgrove laid down accents behind him. “You know by that, I got these walkin' blues.” As he repeated the line, Bromberg added bottleneck responses, compounding a sense of rebellious misery.

Bromberg and his quintet – comprising Cosgrove, violinist Nate Grower, Butch Amiot on bass, and drummer Josh Kanusky – presented a superb two-hour set at the college’s handsome Zankel Music Center, the stage of which has a picture-window backdrop that looked out at twilight’s descent as the concert went on.

It opened, uncharacteristically, with “Sharon,” one of Bromberg’s signature originals, usually presented as a rousing closer or encore. But it worked well in the lead-off spot, the high energy of the piece inviting the rather subdued audience to come to life (it still took a while). It’s a tried-and-true number that also showcases Bromberg’s guitar work, which becomes positively anthropomorphic in a hilarious dialogue moment.

But that moment foreshadowed the blues dialogues to follow. Bromberg and company just finished recording a CD titled “The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing But the Blues” (you can help finish its funding at this page) and offered some selections from it. “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark,” popularized by Dr. John, sports the kind of wry, I-think-I’m-smarter-than-I-really-am lyrics Bromberg enjoys. He sings a different lyric than the Prince Partridge original, with a funnier payoff couplet: “I believe she’s a one-man woman, and I know he’s a one-man hound / How come my dog don’t bark when you’re around?” With the lyric established, Bromberg turned to Cosgrove for a solo, and then to Grower before chiming in himself. This proved more or less to be the pattern throughout the show.

What made the solos particularly effective was that they, too, told stories, building on what came before and taking the mood of the song to unexpected directions.

The David Bromberg Quintet at Skidmore
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Bromberg switched to acoustic guitar for the next number, “Tennessee Blues,” a lament to an easygoing waltz tempo; Cosgrove switched to mandolin for the number after that, a fast instrumental that ended with a Bromberg and Grower sparking furious mandolin licks as well.

He rarely calls attention to the fact that he wrote many of the songs he performs. I suspect he perversely enjoys the fact that they share with classic blues numbers the sense of having been around forever. But “Diamond Lil,” for instance, doesn’t date much farther back than 1972, when it was released on his album “Demon in Disguise.” It has about it a slow, sad majesty (“A man should never gamble / More than he can stand to lose”) that grew into something even more compelling thanks to Grower’s violin solo – again, a wonderful example of storytelling.

Bromberg wrote “The Holdup” with George Harrison, and it plays well as a tongue-in-cheek warning to the wealthy, while “First Time She Quit Me” is one of a series of his songs about defiantly surviving a breakup. Maybe.

One thing you can count on in a Bromberg concert is variety. He mines a wide spectrum of American music, so it’s no surprise that he’d include an English drinking song. Even if, as he pointed out, he had to write it himself. He enlisted Cosgrove and Kanusky to complete the vocal trio on “The Strongest Man Alive,” sung a cappella – a beautiful sound in the beautiful hall.

Cosgrove soloed, flat-picking to a fare-thee-well; Bromberg soloed, with a charming ditty celebrating his years-ago introduction to reefer; the quintet played an old favorite, Ian Tyson’s “Summer Wages,” and then they kicked ass on an extended “New Lee Highway Blues,” including a lengthy Bromberg solo on acoustic guitar before the piece veered into some high-energy fiddle tunes that inspired Grower to even more of a virtuosic frenzy than we’d seen before. It easily brought the crowd to its feel, and the reward for that was an unplugged, edge-of-the-proscenium encore of “Roll On, John,” with a close-harmony vocal that couldn’t have been more affecting.

David Bromberg Quintet
Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, 10 June 2016

Walkin’ Blues
How Come My Dog Don’t Bark
Tennessee Blues
Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky
First Time She Quit Me
The Holdup
Diamond Lil
The Strongest Man Alive
Mark Cosgrove solo
Let the High Times Roll
Summer Wages
New Lee Highway Blues
Roll On, John

1 comment:

Harry Minot said...

Ohhhhh, Byron! All of your blog postings are wonders of talent, spirit, and intelligence. I especially enjoyed this one and thank tou for filling in gaps for me. Bravo!