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Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Art of Irony

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III AND DAVID BROMBERG are guitar-playing singer-songwriters who gained fame in the 1970s, but who, beyond that, would seem to have little in common. One was termed a “new Bob Dylan”; the other recorded with him. Both record and perform with varying configurations of ensemble; both are keen students of American songwriting traditions. Wainwright performed solo during their Nov. 10 appearance at the Troy Music Hall; Bromberg was surrounded by ten other instrumentalists and singers. And the still-hale baby-boomer audience proudly shook its whitened manes as the house commenced to rock.

Mike Davis, Birch Johnason, Suavek Zaniesienko, and
David Bromberg | Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Wainwright opened, going back to his 1973 album “Attempted Mustache” (superb title and cover art) for “Come a Long Way,” setting the stage for a thirteen-song set that would comment on family, relationships amorous and otherwise, holidays, and, briefly and memorably, politics. Bromberg’s opener, his own “Sloppy Drunk,” set us up for a different kind of set, in which lyrics of defiance and pain would be set off by blistering solos.

It’s well understood that Wainwright (by and large) is singing his own songs; Bromberg never calls attention to the songs her performs that are his own compositions, which means that they nestle amidst classics by others with similar craftsmanship and timelessness. What links the two most thoroughly is irony. Classic blues songs have that built in, and the best work of both performers tell stories of love pushed awry.

Take Wainwright’s “Donations.” It presents an “in case of accident” scenario: “I’'m an unmarried orphan whose children have scattered, / Estranged from my siblings, / close friends just a few. / And of those few friends I consider you closest. / They must contact someone. / Could they contact you?” Delivered, characteristically, with smirking awareness of the question’s craziness. The classic blues plaint casts the singer as the not-too-innocent victim, and Bromberg deftly mines that genre with lyrics like, “The first time the girl quit me – this month / She wouldn’t even tell me why. / I couldn’t eat, sleep, drink, or work; / It was all I could do to just lie across the bed and cry.”

Wainwright saluted Thanksgiving with a so-titled song that paints a melancholy portrait of a family-visit obligation, complete with conflict and escape through a nap, and the couldn’t-be-more-timely “Suddenly It’s Christmas,” which “isn’t over till it’s over, and you throw away the tree.” “Time for a folk song,” Wainwright said with a grin as he launched into “Love Gifts,” which pummels “The Riddle Song” with an increasingly ugly (and hilarious) back-and-forth of “presents.”

A compelling centerpiece of the set was his performance of a chapter from his recent book of essays, Liner Notes. Interspersing an a cappella rendering of his “Grammy Song” were scenes from his three visits, as a nominee, to the annual Grammy Awards, and his ongoing battle with the award-worthiness of the recently deceased.

“All in a Family” notes that “Love heals heartache and familial pain, / And what family is not insane?” while “White Winos” delves into the complex depths of his relationship with his mother (whose death sparked the album “Last Man on Earth”) with the convenient, ironic framing device of how much wine she (and he) would consume of an evening: “Mother liked her white wine, she'd have a glass or three, / And we'd sit out on the screen porch, white winos, mom and me. / We’'d talk about her childhood, recap my career; / When we got to my father, that was when I'd switch to beer.”

Loudon Wainwright III
It’s difficult for any performer to avoid mention of the Enemy of the Arts who inhabits the White House, and Wainwright’s “Presidents Day (Redux)” updates a song written a couple of administrations ago: “This year I’m queasy about Presidents Day: / There’s a nut job in the White House, I’m sorry to say.” Prompting a lonely “boo!” from the back of the house, a dissent that intensified at the lines, “There’s a reckoning coming in November, they say, / But meanwhile, it’s unto Robert Mueller we pray.”

“We have some polarization in the house,” Loudon observed, and offered a number “by one of my favorite songwriters” as a balm: Merle Haggard’s 1969 anti-hippie anthem “Okie from Muskogee,” inviting the crowd to sing along with the chorus. This probably was the evening’s apex of irony as that chorus was contextualized into a grand moment of satire in which its targets participated. It could have come right out of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian.
Bromberg has always surrounded himself with top-notch musicians. His big-band lineup has changed over the decades but never faltered, and one of the best choices he’s made recently was to bring in trumpet wizard (and Bix authority) Mike Davis, whose solos throughout were completely in keeping with the spirit of the band and matched his fellow soloists with inventiveness. He even picked up a fluegelhorn for a mournful solo in “Nobody’s,” a Gary White number that Bromberg has long made his own.

The rest of the band (you should see them!) included Matt Koza on tenor sax, with occasional visits to clarinet; Birch Johnson on trombone; the wizardly Mark Cosgrove on guitar and mandolin, violinist Nate Grower (also doubling on mandolin), Suavek Zaniesienko on bass guitar, and drummer Josh Kanusky. For Henry Glover’s “Drown in My Own Tears” (a Ray Charles hit back in the day), Bromberg brought his acoustic guitar downstage past the mics to give us an almost-unplugged opening, setting the stage for the sudden appearance of his back-up vocal trio of Nancy Josephson, Kathleen Weber, and Natalee Smith, familiar from their various incarnations as a stand-alone close-harmony group.

Bromberg tends to call his sets as he plays them, but there’s always a compelling flow, especially when he lets the musician play out, solo after solo building the intensity of a song. Thus we were treated a mix of more originals like “Jugband Song (You Treat Your Daddy So Damn Mean)” and “Tongue,” and Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World,” Bill Browning’s “Dark Hollow,” and a rollicking “Why Are People like That?,” made famous by Muddy Waters.

The high-spirited height of the set was “The Holdup,” which Bromberg wrote with George Harrison and which still speaks to the necessity of the redistribuition of wealth, but the emotional climax can in the extended playout to David Wiffen’s “Driving Wheel.” With the entire band in a solid groove and seven vocalists combining on harmony, it was everything we’d come to expect and had come to hear. Earlier in the set, Bromberg quizzed the audience as to their expectations because he’s well aware that his particular mix of songs and styles is the anti-Spotify playlist. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Loudon Wainwright III
David Bromberg Big Band

Troy Music Hall, Troy, NY
10 November 2018

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