“I really had a great time the last time I was in Baton Rouge but this time I’ve got my band with me so it makes a big difference.” For a singer-songwriter like David Bromberg, he can stand alone on a small stage with just an acoustic guitar or he can surround himself with musicians, strap on his vintage 1958 Fender Esquire and kick up his heels and be equally as happy and content. “The band gives me more of a variety and more power. There are tunes I can do with the band that I don’t even like to try by myself,” Bromberg told me a few days before his show at the Manship Theatre in Louisiana’s state capital last Thursday, May 24th, where he and his band put on a stellar concert featuring blues, bluegrass, folk and a few old-time a cappella tunes.
For Bromberg, who took a twenty-two year break from the business while his star was rising, being back on the stage and recording again feels really, really good. “At one point, I was on the road for two years without being home for as much as two weeks and that will get to you,” Bromberg told Baton Rouge’s Red Magazine, explaining how burn out led to his musical hiatus. “But now I have kind of taken control of how much I do and I’m trying to make sure that I only do things that I’ll enjoy.”
Bromberg began his career in the coffeehouses of New York City, singing his folk songs in the Greenwich Village not long after Bob Dylan had changed the landscape. Before he ever recorded his first solo album in 1972, he had toured and/or played with the likes of Dylan, Jerry Jeff Walker, Richie Havens, John Prine, Rosalie Sorrels and Carly Simon, whose demo he produced and played on her 1971 debut solo album.
The Blues, The Whole Blues & Nothing But The Blues is Bromberg’s latest album, released in the fall of 2016 to great reviews. Covering Robert Johnson, Ray Charles and Sonny Boy Williamson, the Larry Campbell produced record excels at bringing the Bromberg twist to each of the thirteen songs, among them Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” “You’ve Been A Good Ole Wagon,” “Delia,” and a Howlin’ Wolf’d up “900 Miles.” “That particular tune, we had been doing like an old-timey tune but I wanted to do a Howlin’ Wolf tune and all the best ones have been done to death. So we decided to take ‘900 Miles’ and make it into a Howlin’ Wolf tune,” said Bromberg.
Three-fourth’s of the album’s musicians are also part of Bromberg’s live band: guitarist Mark Cosgrove, drummer Josh Kanusky, fiddle player Nate Growler and bassist Suavek Zaniesienko. Numerous times during the Baton Rouge show, the players were given standing ovations and even after the encore the crowd begged for more. Not one to do a setlist beforehand (“I kind of decide what the first tune is going to be and by the end of the first tune I know exactly the kind of thing I want to do for the second tune”), Bromberg picked songs off the top of his head, all of which thoroughly pleased the audience. They began with some blues – a spirited “Walkin’ Blues,” his own “This Month,” Little Hat Jones’ “Kentucky Blues” and “Tennessee Blues” – before easing into a lovely sentimental “Tennessee Waltz,” which Bromberg had covered on his second solo album, 1972’s Demon In Disguise. “The Holdup,” a fingerpicking fun song he co-wrote with George Harrison, had everyone clapping their hands.
Introducing “Come All You Fair & Tender Ladies,” a wonderful old Appalachian folk song, Bromberg wondered what was really the difference between folk music and today’s so-called Americana music. “Folk music is where there is no chance of money changing hands,” he deadpanned. For the next song, “Save The Last Dance For Me,” Bromberg wanted to do a “different kind of folk music – we’ll do a cha cha,” and they went to the edge of the stage and sang with instruments unplugged. “Now we’re going to break it down even further,” whereupon they stood in a semi-circle and did an a cappella of the old spiritual “Standing In The Need Of Prayer.” Bromberg did a solo, sans band, version of “Statesboro Blues,” before his band rejoined him for his own “You’ve Got To Mean It” and “The New Lee Highway Blues.” The encore was an escalating folk tune called “Lost My Driving Wheel.”
Bromberg, who opened a Violin shop in Wilmington, Delaware, certainly has had an interesting career, one that he hopes to continue adding stories to for years to come, and winning over new fans with every show he plays. He talked to me recently about his music, some of the artists he has worked with and how playing at the Isle Of Wight Festival gained him a record contract.
What is going on in your musical world?
Oh boy, well, I’m playing a lot of places I haven’t played before and it’s nice to be places where you haven’t been, opening up new territory. I’m not on the road all year but I go on the road all year. In other words, I go out for anywhere from four or five days to three or four weeks at a time all year round.
Any chance of a new record coming out since the last one came out in 2016?
Yeah, we’re discussing it but before we do a new record we may do a little recording including video and we’ll release little bits of that and then release it all as one project as well. Then I will do a new record. I’ve got lots of material I want to do.
The Blues, The Whole Blues & Nothing But The Blues is such a lively and fun record and I wanted to ask you about the song “You’ve Been A Good Ole Wagon,” which is not a new song at all, but you’ve made it this very vaudeville kind of tune.
Well, Bessie Smith was the first person to perform it. It was written for her. I just thought it was a great song and how am I going to sing it, it’s a woman singing it to a man and it would be a little unsettling to hear some guy call a woman a good ole wagon that broke down. So I decided to make it a recounting of what was said to me. You know, the essence of blues to me is irony and irony can be humorous. But to me a good blues has got to be ironic, there’s got to be some irony in it or it’s not worth your time. You know, I don’t want to hear somebody complain. “Oh look, I’m so depressed.” Who wants to hear that. On the other hand, if you say, “I’ve been down so long it looks like up to me,” that’s more interesting.
Well, I’ve been living in it for a long time (laughs). But I suppose it’s how it’s evolved. I think of them as being very similar except for one feature. See, the thing is, I always like to do that song all alone, no accompaniment aside from me and my guitar. But I did a CD that Larry Campbell produced called Only Slightly Mad – and he also produced my last one – but after Only Slightly Mad the two of us did some concerts just by ourselves, and we also did some with David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, the three of us. But when I was doing those shows, just me and Larry, I would decide to do “Delia” and Larry is sitting there and you know, I’m not going to tell him not to play and what he played was so gorgeous, I thought, I have to put this on a record. So that’s the big difference between the recording that I did years ago and the more recent one. Larry is one of the greatest musicians walking the planet. He is really extraordinary and his part on it just knocked me out every time.
What else does he add when producing your records?
Larry hears everything in real time, and when I say everything, I mean everything – the bass lines, the drummer’s pattern, the rhythm guitar, the acoustic guitar, the accents that are being added by the fill or other instruments we’ve got. He hears it all in real time. And he is the only person I ever run into who really does that. I think the reason is that at one point in his musical development he produced karaoke tracks and the karaoke tracks have to sound exactly like the record. So he got used to hearing every single part as it was being played and that’s extraordinary. It’s like looking at a page of a book and absorbing every word that’s on it at a glance. It’s amazing.
What do you like best about all the new technology available today in the studio?
Well, it’s a lot easier to do editing. It’s a lot easier and you can do things you never used to do. If a note comes in a little late, you can move it. You were never able to do that. It actually gives so many options of correcting mistakes that people correct mistakes that they never should. And that’s another thing I liked about Larry. He’s not aiming for perfection and I don’t aim for perfection. You want it to feel right and if you perfect a piece by making everything exactly where you think it should go and so on, you end up with a rather sterile product.
Do you think maybe some of the younger musicians today are using this new technology to be too perfect?
There definitely are some people overusing it. I mean, one of the more overused things is pitch correction, which we don’t use at all, and you can kind of hear it when it’s a big correction. I don’t really care for it (laughs).
What first sparked your love for music?
Music did (laughs). I can’t say anything past that. I just listened to something and it moved me, it transported me, which to me is the aim of all music is to transport the listener and it worked on me. I grew up loving a lot of genres, which is pretty obvious in my shows and my recordings; I cover a lot of territory. And I never saw any reason not to play anything I like. You know when I started, I started performing in the seventies and then in the eighties I stopped performing for twenty-two years because I got burnt out and I was too dumb to know it was burn out, but when I was performing in the seventies, I was doing really, really well; I was doing a little too well and like I said, I got burnt out, but there was nobody who was doing the variety that I did, the breadth of music that I did, and as a result, the record companies didn’t know what bin to put me in and the record companies didn’t know which radio stations to try and get to play my tracks and there was a lot of confusion. I was Mr Miscellaneous, I guess (laughs). But these days, there are a lot of people doing what I did and do. Go to a Lyle Lovett concert and you’re going to hear a lot of different things.
You went down to Greenwich Village in the 1960’s, after Dylan had come in and gone. Did you have to change anything about your music to fit in?
My music was changing constantly but the wonderful thing about it was, no, I didn’t have to change anything to fit in because it was variety. There was all kinds of stuff going on. All you had to do was be good, which I wasn’t. But I developed.
You know, I actually did write a song that was pretty directly about that but I never performed it, to tell you the truth. There was a period I played with Bob Dylan and we became friends and I sang it to him once and he was very effusive in his praise of it. And I started thinking, you know, I’ve listened to his tunes and they were so much better, and I never sang it again (laughs). And he praised it!
Did you ever record it?
No, never. That was it. And it was the reverse of what he intended, I think, but that’s how I felt.
Do you still know it?
No, I can’t recall it. I remember some of the chords, that’s about it.
Do you think ultimately in the end that the protest songs made a difference?
You know, I have no idea. With the social protest songs of the Civil Rights movement, those songs kind of fueled the protestors. Those songs were really important in a sense of solidarity and building up your bravery. Those songs were important in that movement. I don’t know if the protest songs were important in the anti-war movement.
Is it true you got your record deal because of the Isle Of Wight Festival?
Yeah, as a matter of fact it is. I was at the Isle Of Wight as an accompanist for a singer named Rosalie Sorrels and we were there on a Wednesday, which I remember specifically the festival started on Wednesday but none of the press came until the weekend; some of them may have been there Thursday but I don’t know. But Wednesday, there was no press. There were, however, hundreds of thousands of people. At the time, this was the second Isle Of Wight, which was the last one for many years, and the reason it was the last one was that the people who were there broke down the fences and came in for free. So there were hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t pay and although it may seem anti-intuitive, the truth is that an audience that doesn’t pay is the very hardest audience to please. Maybe a psychologist could explain that better but I know it’s true from experience. And at the Isle Of Wight, this crowd was very tough on the performers and they booed a number of very fine musicians off the stage.
I remember Rosalie and I played Wednesday afternoon and we followed Kris Kristofferson, a wonderful singer and songwriter, and the crowd didn’t quite boo him off the stage but some of them tried. He had a tough time. Then Rosalie and I went onstage and Rosalie’s thing is a very intimate thing. She was always best in front of a small audience in a small room. So a little ways into the show, they started giving her a tough time and she did something that she never did before or after: she asked me to sing one of my songs. It was a long, funny tune and I did it and the crowd liked it and they permitted her to finish her set. When we came offstage, and I wasn’t supposed to perform, but when we came offstage the promoters approached me and asked me if I would come back at dusk and do some songs. I was delighted and at the time I was too green to know it but dusk is the very best time to perform at an outdoor festival, because as the light fades the only light is coming from the stage, so that is where you sort of have to focus your attention. And early in the evening, people aren’t completely burned out and tired of listening.
So I got backstage and I said, “How many songs should I do?” and they said, “Do an hour.” I had never done an hour in my life. I was an accompanist and I had sung in places where you pass the hat and that might be a fifteen minute set. But anyhow, I did an hour and I got two or three encores. The whole festival was being recorded for Columbia Records and he must have told them that I did something good and they offered me a contract.
Joni Mitchell was one who also got pretty tore up by the crowd
Yes. I mean, Joni Mitchell, what a great artist. It’s crazy. But they wanted something harder and they insisted on getting what they wanted. But this is what happens when people don’t pay.
So you get your record deal and you go in the studio. You had worked with Bob Dylan before that so what did you most learn about recording from being in the studio with him?
Not enough (laughs). I didn’t learn enough from him. But I’ll tell you, in the 1990’s, he asked me to produce some tracks for him, a couple on one of his albums and I think sooner or later most of them will emerge, and I learned perhaps the most at that point, when I was producing him. He doesn’t like overdubs or mixed things. He likes recordings in the literal sense of the word, recording of the moment, and he feels, and I think he’s almost always correct, that the most powerful things are the unmessed with moments. I shouldn’t be speaking for him but that was what I understood him to feel. As a matter of fact, if you listen to Blonde On Blonde and Highway 61, if you listen to those records, you’ll notice that there is a sound to them that they have in common that is unique. You don’t hear it on other records. I could be wrong but I think the reason is that those records are what is called rough mixes. When you finish a track and you listen to the playback, you don’t have time to isolate each track and adjust the equalization and so on; you hear it just the way it was played and that’s the way it comes back, or the way it was recorded, I should say. Anyhow, I think that he didn’t do any of that, “Oh, play me the keyboard track, could you add some top to that and take off the bottom and bring it back up again.” None of that. The way it was performed, that’s the way they are, a rough mix. I think that is what that sound is.
Would you rather do records like that or do you like to tinker?
I think it’s better without tinkering. I think he’s right about that. These days I prefer not to produce my own records. Larry Campbell has been producing the last couple and I want him to produce the next one. He does a limited amount of tinkering. Bob, in my experience, likes none, and Larry likes some. I mean, if you do none, you get a sound that’s very different from what you’re used to hearing. If you have a moment, go back to Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde and see if you hear what I’m talking about. Some of the sounds that I’m talking about is the sound of the room itself. I think there are some open mics with not a lot going on in them.
When I interviewed James McMurtry, he said you were one of the most consistent performers he had ever seen and he had a lot of respect for you.
Oh that’s very nice. I actually accompanied him on his first tour. He’s a phenomenal writer. Some of it, I suppose, is in the genes cause his dad is an extraordinary novelist. But I’m not trying to give the credit to his dad cause he works hard on it and he is a fresh and original voice. He comes from his own place and has his own viewpoint and I find it interesting.
How did you come about working with the Grateful Dead?
I was at Woodstock with Rosalie Sorrels again. We didn’t perform but we were backstage. We were there hoping to be put onstage but they didn’t put us onstage. But during the rainstorm, I spent the rainstorm in a teepee with Jerry Garcia, and we just had a good time playing together. As a matter of fact, there is a video on YouTube of Rosalie Sorrels and Jerry is playing guitar and I am playing dobro. You can’t see me except at the very end when I stand up and then it’s pretty much my back but you hear me (laughs). But the video is misattributed; they say it’s Mimi Farina. I wrote an email to them saying that no, that’s Rosalie Sorrels, but it’s still listed as Mimi Farina accompanied by Jerry Garcia and David Bromberg. That was taken at Woodstock. So anyhow, that’s where I first met Jerry and I asked them if they’d play with me and they said yeah.
How do you get away from the business so long and still be able to come back?
You say no. People ask you to do something and you say no and I got offered more and more money (laughs). See, what happened was, I discovered when I was not on the road I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t practicing and I wasn’t jamming. In other words, I wasn’t being a musician and I concluded that maybe I wasn’t a musician anymore. Well, I was but I was burnt out but I was too dumb to realize that that’s what it was all about. And my career was really going up. I was much more visible then than I am today and things were just getting better and better. But one of the reasons they were getting better was because I was working too much (laughs). So I decided I didn’t want to be one of these guys who drags himself onto the stage and does a bitter imitation of something he used to love. And there are people who do that and I just didn’t want to go there. So I decided I had to find another way to live my life and that I would enjoy.
Is that when you opened your violin shop?
That’s when I went to violin-making school. That was the beginning of my journey into the land of violins. I had been playing a little bit of country fiddle and I found violin shops fascinating and I started doing more work around the violin shop when I wasn’t on the road. I was in school for four years. It’s usually a three and a half year course but I took four. And all you learn is to be a beginner. The question is, how long does it take to learn to be a reasonably good violin maker. And the answer is, if you’re really lucky and you’re really good, maybe a lifetime.
You sound like Chris Hillman. Someone told me right before I interviewed him that they thought he was a master of the mandolin and when I mentioned that to him he told me no, he was still learning.
Yeah, anybody who is any good better have that approach. That’s the truth. None of us will ever swallow all of it, none of us will ever learn all of it, and Chris is a good guy and he’s smart. Actually, Chris and Herb Pedersen, who perform together, really had a lot to do with my recording again. I was doing a show with them in Texas and we were sitting around backstage talking about how we started and I said, “Well, I took lessons from Reverend Gary Davis.” Actually, I led him around in return for lessons after a while. And they said, “Can you still play those things?” And I said, “Well, I think I can.” And I picked up the guitar and I started to play some of the tunes that I learned from Gary Davis and they said, “You should be performing those things.” They’d seen my show a few times and I did a lot of different stuff but I didn’t do any Gary Davis stuff. I said, “I suppose you’re right.”
Back in the seventies, when I was touring, after I had taken lessons from the Reverend, I never performed his stuff onstage because he was performing. As good as you can imitate him, you’re still imitating him. So it didn’t make sense for me to perform his things. But he’s gone now and so are some of the people who studied with him. There’s not many of us performing who got to study with him so I decided I’d do one of his tunes now and then. No, actually what I decided then was I decided to go into the studio and record myself doing a tune or two of his and that led to me doing a bunch of different stuff; not only him but other things. It was the easiest record I ever did. I went in every Sunday or so and would play a tune once or twice or maybe three times and then do something different and I figured in a few years I’ll have a CD. Well, it was a couple of months and I had a CD, Try Me One More Time. And it got nominated for a Grammy. It was the only one I had nominated for a Grammy and it was the easiest thing I ever did and it’s just me and the guitar. I was just doing tunes the way I do them. I wasn’t trying to do them, I was just doing them.
I’m glad Chris and Herb talked you into coming back
They talked me into thinking a little more intelligently about the things I learned from Gary Davis (laughs).
So how long have you been playing guitar?
Well, let me see. It came from just loving music, hearing sounds that I liked and trying to make them. The reason I play so many different kinds of music is I never heard anything played on guitar that I didn’t want to do myself. But I started when I was thirteen and I’m 72.
So I guess you can say you’ve had a great career so far, on your own and with all the people you have played with.
I don’t know how I got so lucky but there is no question in my mind that I’ve been very lucky. I guess I was in the right place at the right time a few times. You know, when you stop playing for twenty-two years, you can lose a little fluidity, so I lost some of that but I gained some other things which I treasure. So I can’t completely complain.
Photos by Joe Del Tufo; live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough