Aspen Times Weekly cover story: David Bromberg gets his chops back
December 29, 2011
ASPEN – As David Bromberg is scheduled to do New Year’s Eve honors at the Wheeler Opera House this week, I figure it apropos to begin the conversation with how he spent last New Year’s Eve. He doesn’t remember. “A senior moment,” he explains. So I remind him: Bromberg spent the night of Dec. 31, 2010, in front of some 20,000 fans at the sold-out Pepsi Center in Denver, jamming with Southern rock standouts Widespread Panic. Bromberg led a performance of his own song, “Sharon,” which has been part of Panic’s repertoire for years. The performance stretched out to a nearly 20-minute interlude that kept the Spreadheads happily shuffling, and earned Bromberg (who had also sat in the previous night with Widespread Panic, covering the Bill Withers song “Use Me”) an enthusiastic ovation, and membership in the extended Panic family.
None of this is all that remarkable on the surface. For most musicians, like Bromberg, whose touring days go back 40-plus years, the gigs and sit-ins – even on New Year’s Eve, and maybe especially on New Year’s Eve – run together into a blur. And Widespread Panic is known for having guests sit in with them; during the two nights last December in Denver, rootsy singer-guitarist G. Love and turntablist DJ Logic also jammed with the band.
But for Panic, Bromberg was an out-of-left-field fit. Bromberg is a 65-year-old known mainly for his acoustic, folk-blues guitar work; it had been years, or more like decades, since he’s played for a packed arena. Tall, portly, bespectacled and gentlemanly, he looks, dresses and acts more like a dealer of fine instruments than a player of ripping guitar leads. And as for all those gigs running together in his head – well, that might not apply so much to Bromberg. For more than 20 years, Bromberg took off from performing, and actually did become an instrument dealer, setting up a shop he still runs, David Bromberg Fine Violins, in the heart of Wilmington, Delaware.
Bromberg, on occasion, might have been onstage jamming when the calendar turned; he recalls a few years in the ’80s when he arranged late-December gigs for himself on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. But for the most part, even at the height of his touring activity in the ’70s, when he collaborated with Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Jerry Garcia, Bromberg tended not to work on New Year’s Eve. “Or at least I can’t remember what I did New Year’s Eve,” he said from his Delaware home.
The Wheeler has designed an evening that is meant to be remembered. The theater’s second-floor lobby opens at 7:30 p.m., so that concertgoers can watch the 8 p.m. fireworks over Aspen Mountain through the Wheeler’s huge windows. The ticket includes an open bar through the night. Bromberg and his three-piece band, armed with acoustic and electric instruments (and, possibly, some guest players), will take the stage at 8:30 p.m. After a break to show a simulcast of the ball dropping in Times Square and serve a champagne toast, the band will play again. The show will end in time for the audience to head out to find a place to ring in the new year.
While Bromberg’s onstage appearance with Widespread Panic was somewhat unlikely, then his latest recording project was truly against the odds. For “Use Me,” which was released in July, Bromberg approached an array of singer-songwriters and asked them not just to play on the album, but to contribute a new song to it. Most of them were friends, or at least acquaintances; “Some were people whose music I admired, and I wondered whether they knew who I was,” he said. A few, like Hiatt and Keb’ Mo’, were people who had opened shows for Bromberg. “Evidently I wasn’t too much of an asshole to them.”
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Bromberg still seems a bit surprised, and very grateful, at the response he got. Virtually everyone he asked said yes, and “Use Me” features Linda Ronstadt, Vince Gill, Los Lobos, Keb’ Mo’, John Hiatt and, on two tracks, the Band’s Levon Helm. His new pals in Widespread Panic contributed “Old Neighborhood.”
“It’s an awful lot to ask of anybody. I was surprised and so pleased that everyone just said sure,” Bromberg said, adding that he had to turn down some collaborators because of lack of space on the album.
At the first 7908 Songwriters Festival, in 2009 at the Wheeler Opera House, Bromberg provided the fledgling event with its first knockout moment. He was appearing with John Oates, the festival co-producer, who was not well-acquainted with Bromberg. Also on stage was mandolinist Sam Bush, who knew Bromberg’s work. Bromberg hadn’t gotten a spotlight moment yet, when Bush told Oates that they had to let Bromberg play a blues. Bromberg ripped through “I Will Not Be Your Fool,” a stunning display of guitar virtuosity and theatricality. Oates’ jaw was on the floor.
I asked Bromberg if the musicians he approached for “Use Me” might have been similarly unaware of his talent, and wary to commit to a project by an artist who, not long ago, had been in a two-decade retirement from performing.
“I always entered with the feeling that they had some idea of what they were getting into,” he said. “You don’t give up that time of your life as charity to a loser.”
The seed for “Use Me” was planted by Bromberg’s wife, Nancy. Bromberg had been invited to sit in at a Wilmington gig by Hiatt and Lyle Lovett. Lovett urged him to play one of his own tunes; Hiatt, who had been friendly with him for 20 years, urged Bromberg to visit him in Nashville.
“My wife said, ‘Why don’t you ask him for a song?” Bromberg recalled. Hiatt agreed, and contributed “Ride on Out a Ways.” “That was the first step in the idea.”
Bromberg was raised in Tarrytown, just up the Hudson River from New York City, and while attending Columbia University in the ’60s, he studied guitar with the influential finger-picking guitarist the Rev. Gary Davis. Bromberg played on Bob Dylan’s “New Morning,” from 1970, and also contributed to albums by Willie Nelson, Ringo Starr, the Eagles and many more. George Harrison played on the 1971 debut “David Bromberg” and co-wrote the song “The Holdup”; members of the Grateful Dead, including Jerry Garcia, contributed to the 1972 album “Demon in Disguise.”
By the end of the ’70s, after releasing about an album a year for a decade, Bromberg was ready for something else. “I was burned out,” he said. “At one point I was on the road for two years without two weeks at home. I never thought I’d be burned out. But when I was off the road, at home, I wasn’t practicing, I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t jamming. I wondered whether I was a musician. I didn’t want to be someone who does a bitter imitation of what he used to love.”
While living in California’s Marin County, Bromberg said he got his “biggest intellectual stimulation” from attending a violin show. Fascinated with the art of identifying and authenticating violins, he attended violin-making school in Chicago. “What intrigued me was how one could look at a violin and figure out where it was made and when without reference to the labels, which are often wrong,” he said.
In Chicago, which he calls a good violin city, Bromberg got pulled into supplying shops with instruments. Shopkeepers didn’t often have time to leave their stores and look around at other shops. “So I’d buy things from one shop and sell to the other,” he said. “I started going to Europe and buying in France, Germany, Belgium, and bringing them back. I handled thousands of instruments and built up knowledge and education.”
After opening his own shop in Wilmington, Bromberg learned that the city’s Market Street, where his store was located, was once home to a lively music scene. Over a few lunches, Wilmington’s mayor floated the idea of revitalizing the city’s downtown.
“The only way I could see to help was to have a few jam sessions at a local restaurant,” Bromberg, who had performed very little from 1980-2002, said. “Some very god musicians started to show up. I enjoyed playing, and I was starting to get my chops back.”
Despite being sure his performing career had ended – “I was so sure about it I sold most of my instruments,” he said – Bromberg released 2007’s “Try Me One More Time,” his first studio album in decades. It earned a Grammy nomination, and Bromberg realized that not only were his chops in decent shape, but that he had more to learn.
“I couldn’t play as fast as I used to. And there’s a good side to that – you learn to use rests and silence,” he said. “I tell people, rests are the best notes I play. I also became a much better singer.”
Along with making new music, Bromberg is making new friends. Widespread Panic, for one.
“We seemed to be able to talk. I got along with all of them,” he said. “And they have the best rhythm section of anybody in the jam band world. It’s powerful and it cooks like mad.”