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.”

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