Older, wiser David Bromberg keeps his comeback under control

CorrespondentOctober 31, 2013 

David Bromberg’s latest album is “Only Slightly Mad.”


  • Details

    Who: David Bromberg Quintet with the Holland Bros.

    When: 7 p.m. Sunday

    Where: Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro

    Cost: $24-$27

    Info: 919-967-9053 or catscradle.com

After two decades of self-imposed exile, David Bromberg is on the road again. But this time, he’s taking charge.

“It feels natural,” said Bromberg, who brings the David Bromberg Quintet to Cat’s Cradle Sunday.

“I didn’t realize back in the day that I could take control – that I could say, ‘No, I don’t want to do that gig.’ Or, ‘No, I don’t want to work that much.’ Or, ‘No, I don’t want to work that kind of place.’ I can do all of that now.”

Burned out from the demanding lifestyle, the Grammy-nominated musician who entertained fans with his stately cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” and mournful version of the murder ballad, “Dehlia,” retired from performing in 1980. He moved to Chicago and began learning to make and evaluate violins.

In 2002, Bromberg and his artist wife, Nancy, relocated to Wilmington, Del., and opened David Bromberg Fine Violins. One day, while having lunch with the mayor, Bromberg was encouraged to return to playing music.

The comeback

“The mayor was a big music fan,” Bromberg said. “He told me there used to be live music up and down the street I live on and that my shop is on. He wanted to see that again. I figured the only thing I could do to assist would be to start a couple of jam sessions. So I started a sort of acoustic music/bluegrass jam session, and an electric Chicago blues-style jam session.”

Bromberg said really good musicians started showing up for the jam sessions. “I started really enjoying it and getting some chops back, so I decided ... why not see if I can still draw a crowd. And I can. So it’s been fun.”

In 2007, Bromberg announced his return with “Try Me One More Time,” his first studio recording in 18 years. The album was nominated for a Grammy Award as Best Traditional Folk Album.

Bromberg was back, and in good form.

His latest recording, “Only Slightly Mad,” was released earlier this year to rave reviews. Bromberg considers it his best.

“My singing is better on this than the ones I did before I stopped playing,” he said. “Also, Larry Campbell produced it. He is an extraordinary producer. He’s about the only guy I could think of who understands all the kinds and genres of music that I like to do. He understands them well.”

Playing with the greats

Campbell is not the only musician who values Bromberg’s talents. Bromberg has contributed guitar, fiddle, Dobro, and mandolin to recordings by a virtual who’s who of world-class artists, including Willie Nelson, Ringo Starr, the Eagles, Jerry Garcia and George Harrison, who appears with Bromberg on their co-written song, “The Holdup.”

Then there’s Bromberg’s friendship with Bob Dylan, dating to their Greenwich Village days. Bromberg played guitar on Dylan’s “Self Portrait” and “New Morning” albums, which are revisited on Dylan’s recently released double-CD set, “Another Self Portrait (1969-1971).”

Bromberg’s solo career happened accidentally with an unscheduled performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. He was there to accompany folk singer Rosalie Sorrels. But an odd sort of Woodstock redux elevated Bromberg from sideman to featured performer.

“[Fans] broke down the fences and everybody came in free,” he recalled. “An audience that hasn’t paid is the hardest audience to please. I know that sounds contradictory, but it’s really true.

“This crowd booed several very fine and famous artists off the stage, and gave several others a very rough time. (Rosalie) is an intimate performer. As she was doing her set, the crowd started getting restless. She asked me to do a tune of mine. She never before or after asked me to do a tune in her set. I was surprised. She asked me to do ‘Bull Frog Blues.’ The crowd loved it.

“When we came off, the promoters approached me and asked me if I would come back at dusk and do some more,” Bromberg said. “I was too green to know that was the best time to perform at an outdoor concert. At dusk, the only light is from the stage, so it directs people’s attention there and their ears aren’t fried.”

Bromberg played for an hour, including three encores.

Bromberg’s solo career was off and running, but he ran so fast that he eventually crashed and burned.

Old and new

At 68, Bromberg is older and wiser. But he’s still as passionate about his music as he was at the peak of his early years. While he spends most of his time appraising violins, he enjoys the nights he spends on stage making old and new music for old and new fans.

“I’m not getting tired of it,” he says. “I’m keeping it under control.”

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