Thursday, May 19, 2016

Crafting a Career- A Conversation with David Bromberg

Calling David Bromberg a guitarist is like saying that Van Gogh ‘painted a little.’ 

Bromberg’s career in music spans six decades and more than 50 years.  A part of the mid-to late sixties folk scene at Greenwich Village, he has had a thriving career as a performer and session musician, recording with the likes of Willie Nelson, Doc Watson, Emmy Lou Harris, Carly Simon, Jerry Garcia, John Prine and George Harrison.  He may be the only session musician who has worked with both Bob Dylan and the Beastie Boys.

Photo by Jim McGuire

While his career has been expansive, it hasn't always been linear.  Between 1980 and 2002, Bromberg took a musical ‘detour’- he attended the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making in Chicago, where he lived for 22 years.   He put his touring and recording career on hold, he recounted.

“Yeah, I entirely stopped touring.  There was a period of time where I was on the road for two straight years without having more than two consecutive weeks at home. You burn yourself out when you do that. And I burned out, I was just too dumb to know it was burnout.”

“On tour, I wasn't able to practice, jam, perform with others. I was tired, and I just didn't want to drag myself onstage and become a bitter imitation of a guy doing something he used to love. So I went to Violin School.”

“Violin is something you can study, but never learn.   I learned to make them so I could identify them.  When someone talks about playing a Martin, a Gibson, or a Fender guitar, there's a really good chance that they were made in a Martin, Gibson, or Fender factory.  But if a violin says Stradivarius violin, the odds are pretty long that the Stradivarius ever saw the instrument. That intrigued me. I’m still studying, I’m still interested in violins, and run a shop that sells and repairs them in Delaware.”

Bromberg grew up in the Hudson River Valley in the sixties.  Although he was aware of them, and would run into them, Bromberg was not directly involved with Pete Seeger’s ‘Clearwater ‘ Foundation.  Bromberg deeply respects the pioneering effort spearheaded by Seeger.

“Pete deserves all the credit in the world for what he did with the Clearwater, educating people about the Hudson River and pollution. I knew a lot of the artists working with him on that project, but Pete deserves to be remembered for his efforts. There’s no other project like it anywhere.”

Bromberg drifted down to the New York City/Greenwich Village folk scene, which was vibrant and offered a lot of opportunities for talents like him.   Before long, his prowess on stringed instruments made him a much-in-demand accompanist and sideman. He worked with Tom Paxton, Jerry Jeff Walker and Rosalie Sorrels.  As his fame grew, he was invited into the studio to record with other musicians. He appeared in hundreds of sessions on hundreds of albums, including work by Willie Nelson, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, The Eagles, Link Wray, and Bob Dylan.  He may be the only musician who worked with both Dylan and The Beastie Boys.

While doing session work, Bromberg was encouraged to step out on his own by a fellow guitar player, the late and legendary Steve Burgh.

“I actually continued sessions for quite for a while- my friend Steve Burgh and I would sit around my apartment in New York, and play.  Sometimes I'd sing.  At the time, I was an accompanist for a lot of people- and Steve, who was a wonderful guitar player, said he would give up guitar and play bass for me if I'd tour.  And when someone as talented as him is willing to give up the limelight, that's something you sit up and take notice of.  He was my band for a few years, until we expanded into a band.   And he still played bass with me. It meant a lot to me that he would be willing to accompany me.”

Bromberg’s career stretches from the folk revival of the sixties through til today.  He is one of the few remaining performers who studied directly with Reverend Gary Davis, the legendary gospel and blues singer, whose students included Bromberg, Stefan Grossman, Rory Block, and the producer of Bromberg’s most recent CD, “Only Slightly Mad,” Larry Campbell. Bromberg’s love of gospel and blues was cemented by his experience with Davis.

“Reverend Davis was a wonderful teacher, incredibly patient.  As part of my experience studying with him, I took him to his church on Sundays. I just started to love the church, all of them, with this wonderful music. I loved that music.  I’ve probably been in more churches than any Jewish boy you know.”

His latest CD opens with a song he heard in those churches in the Bronx and Manhattan- Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” written by the enigmatic blues and gospel singer. It’s one of several blues tunes featured on the CD.

“It’s a song I heard at those churches,” remembers Bromberg.

Famed for his live shows, Bromberg is looking forward to this tour.

What can people expect?

“Well, hopefully, they can expect to hear good music.  I’m doing a new CD, called “The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing But the Blues,” so people can expect to hear some blues.”

 But don’t shout out song suggestions to the artist while he’s performing.

“Yeah, one or two people will call things out, but I’ve pretty much broken the audience of doing that.  The way I work, shouting out for a song has the opposite effect.  I never have a set list.  When I finish playing a tune, I have a feeling about what energy I want to happen next, and people shouting out stuff gets confusing. I lose track of that energy.”

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Mood is Right- a Conversation with Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues

Justin Hayward, one of the most distinctive voices and guitar stylists of our generation, is touring the United States with his "Stage Door" show.    The lead singer of the Moody Blues for the past 50 years, Hayward has helped sell over 70 million albums and CD’s. He performs acoustically with Mike Dawes on guitar and Julie Ragins on keyboards and other instruments.

Hayward, who considers himself a songwriter first and foremost, joined the Moody Blues in late 1966, and over short period of time helped to change their sound, as he explained.

“In truth, we were the same band trying to play the same sets initially, after Clint Warwick and Denny Laine left in 1966. We were trying to continue to play rhythm and blues. I came aboard as a songwriter with a determination to get my songs done.  Mike Pindar, (keyboard player) was writing. When we realized that the lineup we had become didn’t work as a rhythm and blues band, we decided to play mostly our own materiel. Things were tough for a while- I went back to live with my parents during this time."

“We tried doing our own materiel. Around that time, 1967, Decca hired us to record an album that was really a way for them to demonstrate how stereo worked. That record became ‘Days of Future Passed’.  You can tell- there’s a lot of echo in it, and the sound today feels very thin to me.”

Hayward would often build his songs at home before bringing them to the band.

“I would do a lot of work at home.  I’ve always felt that trying to do a lot of the work of putting a song together in the studio is really hit or miss, though there is nothing wrong with doing it that way. I’ve found it more satisfying to do it my own way.  I would work out the bass line, and the rhythm guitar, so that by the time we got to the studio I already knew what I wanted. The one variable was the keyboard lines, and Mike Pindar was always adding these fantastic bits.”

Ironically, the song most associated with the Moody Blues, the iconic ‘Nights in White Satin,’ remains somewhat enigmatic to Hayward, it’s writer.

“I'm not sure why it’s been such a success.  At the time, a lot of people including some in the band thought the song didn't have any of the qualities of a successful single. It wasn’t even released in the United States at first- ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ was released first in the United States. I guess the song has some kind of resonance with people, though I’m at a loss.  I know you can go anywhere we play and people will react to it.“

The distinctive sound of the Moody Blues- lush, orchestral with soaring harmonies, often counterpointed with falsetto, derived from a combination of factors.

“The key for us was the Mellotron – it was an instrument that had started out as a  sound effects unit. It also contained orchestral sounds on it... this was before the development of the synthesizer. Mike Pindar was familiar with it, and had worked with the company that built it for a few months. He knew the potential of the instrument. So those sounds became the sound of the Moody Blues. “

“We also had four really good voices in the band, and we had to find a place for within the range of those voices for each of us, which is why we used falsetto.  I was in the middle, and the falsetto thing allowed us to arrange voices in a way that came naturally.”

Hayward considers himself a songwriter, and finds that the solo performance setting brings out a unique relationship with the songs he has written.

“The solo performance. Takes me back to where I was when I wrote the song, the essence.  When I’m working solo, I can hear every nuance in the room.  It’s exactly the original way I heard them when I wrote them. I love playing with the ‘Moodies’-we’ve had great group success. Performing onstage requires a different balance, in a technical way, than recording does. I’ve always started my songs with acoustic runs and guitar. Doing this solo I have this valuable opportunity to perform with two great musicians.  It’s much closer to the spirit of the songwriting process.”

The Moody Blues have fans all over the world, and apparently off this world, too.

“It seems that our music was a favorite of NASA, back during the shuttle days. They made up a tape of Moodies stuff that they took with them on the missions; I suppose we were a little disappointed that they bootlegged the tape.  Hoot Gibson, one of the Shuttle pilots, is a lovely, charming man. It was a big thrill to meet him. All these people at NaSA were a big inspiration for me.

Hayward is primarily playing acoustic guitar on this tour.

“My hero was Buddy Holly, who always used acoustic and electric guitars on his recordings, which was a revelation to me.  It’s probably the reason why they Moodies didn't have a rhythm guitar player. "

It all boils down to the performance. Artists as diverse as Glenn Campbell and Slade, Deodato and The Dickies have covered his songs.  One cover stands out to Hayward, that of songstress Bettye LaVette, whose smoldering version of ‘Nights’ impressed Hayward.

“I think she gave every word a new meaning; the whole song has new meaning to me after I heard her version. I wrote to her, she wrote back and it was delightful.  It’s by far the best cover version. I absolutely loved it; it means a lot to me.”

Hayward continues to tour with and without the Moody Blues. 

Raising the Barre- a Conversation with Solo Artist and former Jethro Tull Guitarist Martin Barre

Martin Barre, after 43 years as the lead guitarist for rock legends Jethro Tull, is on his own.  His solo tour finished up at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, Massachusetts on April 30.

In addition to playing several Tull pieces, he and his band mostly perform the music that Barre has written; a hard-edged, blues tinged, rock repertoire. Barre compares this effort with his work in Tull.

When I joined Tull, they were a blues band.  I thought that would be the main agenda, which troubled me a little. I wasn’t really a blues guitarist at all. I started playing their old set, the one they developed with the original guitar player Mick Abrahams, who was a great blues player. I didn't want to try to fill his shoes.  It was a great relief when the music of Tull completely changed.  It was like we started from zero, scratch; and moved in a completely new direction.  It was good to have a part in that from the very beginning. I spent the last 40 years writing a lot of music.”

“The solo stuff is nice thing to take up at this stage in my career.  I’ve got great motivation to play better, and the band, who art all young guys, pushed me a bit.  Until now, I didn't realize how enjoyable writing is.”

Barre, whose fretwork was a major element in the music of Tull, also enjoys working with his new band as a leader.  He noted differences with his earlier experience.

“I love that none of us were really anonymous in Tull, but there was a way in which that band was presented. We weren’t given much of a choice. Ian Anderson (lead singer and flautist of Tull) was such a strong personality.  He loved the limelight, and the more he could do the better.  Sometimes he didn’t want to share it. I loved it when he and I used to do TV together. I sort of thought we had that Mick Jagger/Keith Richards thing going, that big connection. I guess he didn’t se it that way. Ian liked the spotlight.  He has such a strong image. It was his character that really became the ‘brand’ for the band. “

“I really enjoy it now, running the band. We work very hard; I like the fact everyone shares in all the aspects of being a band- music, rehearsal, performing. “

The tour supports his most recent solo album, Back to Steel. Barre has put a lot of thought into his music since Jethro Tull stopped touring. The album features some of the strongest playing in Barre’s career, and is comprised of strong, blues-tinged hard rock.

“This is an important album for me, I took a lot of consideration about what it should be; I wanted to create music that I could take to a gig and would sound really, really strong; and could be played hand in hand with the Tull materiel. I never stopped playing Tull, but this is important because this is my own music. I hope this album is a stepping stone, the beginning of more songwriting and more solo albums.  I would describe it as strong power rock blues.  I’ll go wherever it takes me. It feels more focused.”

Still, he feels equally excited about playing some of the old Jethro Tull materiel in concert.

“With the Tull stuff, I want to reinvent it and mix it up a bit. I want the music to be sparkling, new and energetic. I'd rather win fans over in a more subtle way by giving them something that they don't expect. Some of the Tull songs I completely reconstruct- for example, "Fat Man", is now a rock piece- straight ahead, and heavy.  It’s got a whole new face. The song is essentially intact but we've pushed into a different area, and it works.”

Barre wants all of the music to be taken at face value.

“I don't want to be associated with the thought we are a cover band.  That would just destroy me, because it’s so far from what we do.  One thing we are not is a cover band. Only a few of the songs end up getting played the same as the record.  I want people to come away realizing that this is the Martin Barre Band, and we are unique. With the Tull stuff, we’re not trying to be clever with it.  For example, “Locomotive Breath isn’t done the way Tull used to do it.  It’s completely changed- the tempo and feel.  There is no flute in the band, so we needed to refocus the ‘color’ of the song.“

Barre feels very at home and welcome touring the United States.

“America is been a huge part of my life.  I’ve been coming here 45 years.  Over that time, I’ve seen huge changes in the U.S. Politically, I couldn't even dare to offer opinions- it’s none of my business. I’m mindful I’m a guest and try to be respectful. I love America. I’m married to an American, my son lives here, and I’ve spent a lot of my life here. I’m grateful for that opportunity.  America is a big stage for music; the listening public is huge, loyal and intelligent and broad in their tastes.”

“When I play a gig, i think basically it should be good fun, great night out.  I love it when people come up to me after a typical Barre gig, and say "I didn't know what to expect what you've done far exceeded it." Things that in theory they wouldn't like, they really like when we do it. They go away feeling positive, and come back and see it again. And we just try to improve on that. That's my mission. I’m getting on in years, but I have a young band.  I love what I do; and I've found that over time, my playing has gotten stronger. I’ll be honest- the day I need to stop, when it’s time to call it a day, I'll do it.  I'd rather not have it said about me that I hung on too long. This is a big opportunity to play more than I used to.  Over time, my part in Tull diminished.  So I’m happy playing a supportive role in a band-again, playing solo, I realized how little I was doing with Tull, at the end- so playing out solo has really opened the floodgates.”