If the company he keeps is a measure of a musician’s talent, then David Bromberg takes a back seat to no one in the last 40 years.
Bromberg has performed or collaborated with Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Ringo Starr, Dion, Link Wray, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Vassar Clements, John Sebastian, Jerry Jeff Walker, Chubby Checker, Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, Arlo Guthrie and dozens more. The multi-instrumentalist’s dexterity on guitar, mandolin, dobro and fiddle earned him a lot of calls, even from pop acts for whom he often played anonymously.
“I played guitar on the last hit that Jay and the Americans ever had (the 1970 top-20 single `Walkin’ in the Rain’),” he says with a laugh. “That and a buck fifty will get you on a subway.”
Bromberg, 61, could’ve ridden that musical subway for a lifetime if he had so chosen. But instead he exited at the busiest time of his career, then barely touched a guitar for 20 years. Only now is he resurrecting his public profile as a musician. Next month Appleseed Recordings will release his first album of new material in 17 years, “Try Me One More Time.”
“I have an entirely new perspective on my music, and I think it’s a healthier one,” he says. But it took him two decades to find it.
Bromberg spent his early years on the East Coast, and emerged on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the mid-‘60s. He launched a solo career and snagged a recording contract with a thrilling set at the Isle of Wight concert in 1970. A dozen albums established him as one of the most adventurous interpreters of his generation, a roots-music maestro who could negotiate everything from densely orchestrated jazz, bluegrass and swing to solo blues and folk. He wasn’t just a student of traditional music, he also was an innovator, a “folk singer” who would perform with a horn section and electric guitars. Traditional songs were his source material, but his approach suited the needs of the mood and the moment.
“I called him the kamikaze bluesman,” said the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Sebastian in the liner notes to “The Player,” a 1998 Bromberg career retrospective. “He’d play whatever came into his head. He was fearless that way.”
Yet in 1980, Bromberg gave it all up to move to Chicago and attend the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making. Upon graduation four years later, he became a full-time wholesaler, one of the most respected violin collectors and dealers in the world.
“I thought that I was not a musician anymore at that point,” he says. “I’d gotten burned out from touring so much. At one point I was on the road for two years without being home for two weeks. I got out before I got bitter.”
During his 22 years in Chicago, Bromberg occasionally dabbled in musicmaking once in a while, while tending to his violin business and his responsibilities as a father and husband. He still managed to release another solo record, and he worked with Dylan on an album in the early `90s that has yet to be officially released.
“There was some very good stuff done there, but Bob let me mix it, and I did a terrible job,” he says. “The roughs are way, way better. If you listen to Dylan records around the time of `Highway 61 Revisited’ and `Blonde on Blonde,’ there is a particular sound. It’s not a sound like a note, but the sound of the room. Those are rough mixes, and they have so much immediacy. I learned a great deal from that.”
It was a lesson that Bromberg would apply later. But not before making his exit from Chicago in 2002. “I’m sorry, but I just didn’t want to face another Chicago winter,” he says with a laugh.
He also got a better offer: an invitation from the mayor of Wilmington, Del., to move his violin business there and rejuvenate the city’s downtown music scene. Bromberg and his wife and fellow musician Nancy Josephson set up shop there, and Bromberg began hosting weekly jam sessions with friends and visiting musicians.
“It got me playing regularly again, some chops started to creep back into my fingers, and I started to really enjoy it,” he says. “I even wrote a few tunes, which was really a huge surprise.”
He returned to a recording studio to knock out some tunes by the late Rev. Gary Davis, the blues legend. “I used to act as his seeing-eye dog,” Bromberg says of the blind musician who specialized in a percussive finger-picking style of guitar playing. “I used to take him around to churches and occasionally concerts. He was a great guitar player, and I learned a whole lot from him. A couple friends pointed out to me that there aren’t too many left who had personal contact with the reverend and that I should be doing his tunes.”
He decided to record some Davis songs in the same studio in nearby Maryland used by his wife’s Angel Band, of which Bromberg is a member. When the studio relocated to his neighborhood in Wilmington, Bromberg began dropping by at more frequent intervals to record more songs, just for the heck of it.
“It wasn’t like the old days where I’d lock myself in and do nothing but play the music and get really fixated for weeks at a time without seeing the sun,” Bromberg says. “This time, I went in and sat down and sang what I felt like singing and left after a couple of hours each time.”
Over a few months he accumulated enough songs to create an album, a mix of blues by Davis, Willie McTell and Robert Johnson, and a batch of traditional tunes steeped in folk, bluegrass and jazz, plus one original, “Try Me One More Time,” after which the album is titled.
Bromberg’s guitar playing is as agile as ever, and his song choices are astute: tales of death, sex and struggle that sound astonishingly relevant, funny and moving stripped to their essence. But the album’s biggest revelation is his singing. Bromberg’s vocals sound bigger, freer and friskier than ever.
“It reminds me of a field recording,” Bromberg says. “Just a guy doing what he does. At no time was I trying to impress anyone. I don’t feel like I have a lot to prove anymore.”