David Bromberg

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The best thing about a David Bromberg concert is watching him smile—beam, really—at the artists with whom he shares the stage. I have never seen a musician who so obviously delights in the talents of others and who so surrounds himself with extraordinary talent. The fond paternal promptings, the mischievous nods of “you take it now,” the sheer pleasure of his gaze on a colleague, make seeing a Bromberg concert a warm, familial experience. We were delighted to share in such an experience last week at the Count Basie in Red Bank, a venue he obviously likes, and an audience which obviously loved him. The show was terrific, a rousing and eclectic mix of rock-n-roll, bluegrass, blues, Celtic folk, and Americana. He even played a lovely fiddle version of “Over the Rainbow.”

He played with his Big Band—Butch Amiot (bass), Mitch Corbin (mandolin), Nate Grower (fiddle), John Firmin (sax and clarinet), Peter Ecklund (trumpet), Curtis Linberg (trombone), and Josh Kanusky (drums). Supporting vocals were provided by the Angel Band, the opening act headed by his long-time wife Nancy Josephson. And the pleasure they all took in being together and making beautiful sounds was palpable.

We had approached the concert with no little trepidation. Steve has been seeing Bromberg concerts for thirty years, and I was hooked from the first one he took me to about ten years ago, having now seen the Big Band and the David Bromberg Quartet over a half-dozen times myself. But we had been so dissatisfied with the sound mix at the Count Basie that we were afraid the wonderful Bromberg lyrics—and they are wonderful: wicked, funny, biting, and smart—would be garbled and indistinguishable, as they had been for our previous two outings for Gregg Allman and Hot Tuna. We were also concerned about the rowdiness of a crowd pumped up and fueled by drink, as had also been the case at the other concerts. But the sound was perfect; every lyric clear and crisp. Apparently, each band handles its own sound mix, so shame on the sound engineers for Gregg Allman and Hot Tuna. And the Bromberg crowd was loving and respectful and generally sober. That’s not to say they sat quietly; not at all. In fact, when Bromberg, in introducing “Over the Rainbow” said, “I’m going to play something tonight you wouldn’t expect me to,” the audience offered up a multitude of wild guesses (“Free Bird” being one of the funniest) until a woman hotly said, “Play whatever you want, David.” Which nicely summed up the lively interchange between artist and performer that had been almost entirely missing at the Allman and Tuna concerts, attended largely by people who wanted to recapture some sort of youthful excess of sex-and-drugs-and-rock-n-roll badness while checking their BlackBerrys between songs.

If you’ve never seen or heard Bromberg, here is a clip to check out; his website at http://www.davidbromberg.net/, which is easy and pleasurable to navigate, features the same song (one of his most famous). In the clip, see the look he gives the horn section 10 seconds in; that’s an example of that wonderful camaraderie that is so much fun to watch.

Because his back catalogue is so vast, he has a lot of interesting music to choose from in performance. One highlight from last Friday’s performance, which I had not heard before, was “Traveling Man.” Here’s a cut from this long song, each stanza of which the band played as if it were the last, drolly compounding the already funny lyrics:

This fool went to Liverpool England
Just to swim the ocean blue
He saw the Titanic coming 10 miles away
And he ride it the whole day through
The people all said he was crazy
Everybody called him a fool
But when the Titanic sunk in the deep blue sea
He was shooting dice in Liverpool

In this song, like a lot of Bromberg’s material, the lyrics are reminiscent of American tall tale—Paul Bunyan hyperbole. Villains and deeds are so outrageously bad, they’re funny. In this vein, one of Steve’s favorite lines is from “The Jugband Song”: “You treat your daddy so damn mean,/When I ask for water,/She brings me gasoline.” Which is not too far removed from a similarly hard-hearted woman Bromberg sang about last week in “Helpless Blues,” who, when asked “Oh, how can you just stand right there in my face and watch me cry?” responds “I got news for you/Oh, darling, I can stand in your face and watch you die!” Bromberg’s tongue-in-cheek delivery slyly sends up these Evil Women and their helpless men.

Another highlight was in a more somber style. I had not heard this one before either, but it’s on a very early Bromberg album and titled “Delia.” It is apparently an old song (by Blind Willie McTell and  Gary Davis, according to an online search), and he says it’s based on a true story (see here, bottom of page, for more: http://www.guitarseminars.com/ubb/Forum1/HTML/000884.html). It contains the wonderful line (look at the work that comma does!) “She’s all I’ve got, is gone,” repeated throughout in this first-person narrative by Delia’s murderer.

Beyond his sheer musicality, his infectious good spirits onstage, and his witty and intelligent songs, Bromberg is also, it seems to me, very much an American musical treasure, like Guthrie — and yes, Harburg — and many others, known and unknown, who reflect and capture what’s best in the national character: humor, independence, can-do wiliness. In this regard, I do not forget the moving speech he made at the conclusion of a show we saw at the Birchmere during George Bush’s presidency, when he spoke of how troubled he felt by the recent passage of the Patriot Act, noting that in all his research of the matter, he had never seen an instance where rights taken away from a people were ever given back. A profound and disturbing thought indeed.

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One thought on “David Bromberg

  1. We saw David Bromberg and Angel Band on 11-10-11 at Narrows Center for the Arts, Fall River, MA. A slightly different line-up but Mitch Corbin and Nate Grower were there. It was a very, very, very good show…and I think your review (while of a different show in a different venue) is pitch perfect. Thank you.

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