One would think an album with the implicit theme about being a road band would be a live release. However, Big Road isn’t despite it being recorded by David Bromberg and his touring group. That’s not exactly true as Big Road is more than just a single record. It’s a self-proclaimed project that not only includes 12 new tracks, but also five high-definition performance videos and a mini-documentary detailing the album’s creation. Big Road will be issued in three formats: traditional CD, a gatefold vinyl album, and a deluxe CD/DVD combo pack. This review focuses on the single CD release.
Bromberg’s Americana music is steeped in the nostalgia for a simpler past with an awareness that some topics like heartbreak, prayer, and having a good time, are timeless. The album does a good job of mixing things up stylistically while maintaining a consistent vibe. The songs run together without ever sounding repetitive. So even when Bromberg and company go from twangily praising past country music greats (“George, Merle & Conway”) to joyfully celebrating marijuana (“Mary Jane”) to offering a capella gospel tributes to the Lord (“Standing in the Need of Prayer”), the transitions are smooth.
Much of this is due, no doubt, to Bromberg’s talented band members. The core group consists of multi-instrumentalist and lead singer Bromberg, Mark Cosgrove (guitar, mandolin, vocals), Nate Grower (fiddle, mandolin, guitar, vocals), Josh Kanusky (drums, vocals), and Suavek Zaniesienko (bass, vocals). They are joined on this album by Dan Walker (piano, organ, and accordion), Birch Johnson (trombone), Jon-Erik Kellso (trumpet), Matt Koza (tenor sax) and Bob Stewart (tuba,) and Larry Campbell (mandolin and pedal steel). It’s a big ensemble, but the individual songs come off as intimate productions because the whole group rarely play all at the same time but usually play solos and duets as needed.
Take the 10-plus-minute centerpiece, the self-penned “Diamond Lil”. Bromberg’s vocals are at the forefront. He sings in a slow, drawn-out drawl, repeating, “A man should never gamble / more than he can lose” as if it was a Buddhist mantra. The individual players emerge and disappear from the proceedings like the ghosts of bad hands that haunt the gambler. Who knows what the next number will be until the dice are thrown? The song captures that feeling of patiently waiting for more than anticipation. Fate can be a cruel mistress or a lucky lady.
Big Road contains elements of old-time country, folk, bluegrass, gospel, blues and more. The title track is an old Tommy Johnson Delta blues number that allows Bromberg to utilize his vocal range. He has an especially soulful growl in his voice that can zip into a high pitched “ah” as if he can’t control his emotions. He successfully twists lines like “The blues ain’t nothing but an achin’ heart” into a soliloquy of love and pain.
Bromberg’s singing is infectiously good, but it’s his (and his bandmates) playing that makes the disc such a pleasure to hear. The instrumental trilogy “Maiden’s Prayer / Blackberry Blossom / Katy Hill” serves as a great example of simple but elegant playing. The trilogy begins with a beautiful lilting melody and ends with a three-mandolin breakdown. The fingers may be flying, but the track comes off as quietly gentle as natural as a babbling brook. That is true even of the story songs. Bromberg lets the instruments speak as much as his singing. He’s a captivating presence, whether he’s vocalizing, playing, or leading his bandmates forward.
The Big Road of the title song refers to the journey of life. For Bromberg, music represents the experience of living. His latest album reveals how intertwined the two are.