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Old is the New Cool

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Photograph by Pat Crowe II

David Bromberg builds, repairs, restores,
buys and sells violins, violas and cellos
from his shop in Wilmington. He also still
records—his latest album received
a Grammy nomination.

 

 

 

 

Inside the Arden Gild Hall, the buzz of anticipation fills the air, accompanied by the clink of bottles of Dogfish Head IPA and the glug of red wine into plastic tumblers.

“It’s a good crowd,” says one audience member. “I like the old hippie crowd.”

The throng is here to see Angel Band, a Wilmington-based three-woman harmony group that belts out country-tinged, chick-centric folk music of the sort that reminds baby-boomer women (and their men) that getting a little gray in the temples doesn’t mean there isn’t still some fire in their hearts—or their loins, for that matter.

The combined and individual voices of Jen Schonwald, Kathleen Webber and Nancy Josephson are indeed angelic, raising the rafters in this historic structure in a stunning example of the feats three sets of human vocal chords can accomplish.

Though the effervescent Josephson is the acknowledged leader of the assemblage, many eyes are focused tighter on the musicians who make up the rest of Angel Band—particularly the fellow second from left who keeps switching between acoustic guitar, National steel guitar and dobro.

From 15 rows away, the bearded fellow, dressed in pressed slacks and a striped dress shirt, could be just about anyone—your neighbor, your kid’s biology teacher, your rabbi. He trades asides here and there with Josephson, but is otherwise silent. During his solos, however, words aren’t really necessary. He handles his instrument like a physical extension, as if he and the guitar are wired together.

For most of the audience, a good show is just the cherry on top of seeing David Bromberg play. He is, after all, one of the most famous sidemen to walk the planet and, should he choose to, could spend an afternoon and evening naming the artists he’s recorded with over the years—Garcia, Dylan, Checker, Denver, not to mention two Beatles and a good portion of AM radio’s 1970s playlist.

Many of the fans tonight found Bromberg long ago through his association with country-rock troubadour Jerry Jeff Walker, the man who penned “Mr. Bojangles.” Others caught wind of him through his impromptu performance at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 or early albums like “Demon in Disguise.”

In the intervening years he built a loyal fan base of those who respect both his musicianship and the colorful way he interprets the blues and bluegrass.

The fans have started coming out of the woodwork, though most are a little grayer, with a few more pounds around the waists of their Dockers. There have also been artists young and old interested in recording his songs, among them Bob Dylan and country music legend Charlie Louvin. And Bromberg’s first album in 17 years, “Try Me One More Time,” has garnered critical praise and a Grammy nomination. Josephson, his wife, jokes that the family now refers to him as the “new cool old guy.”

But Bromberg avoids the temptation to gaze back fondly on gauzy memories of life on the road and in the studios with some of music’s greats. Instead, he looks around the room, taking in talent others might not see. Then he gazes forward, left hand on the guitar neck, right hand outstretched, inviting those who might not have known success or fame to come on a ride, to show the rest of the world—or at least the crowd of admirers in this place—what they can do.


David Bromberg is a member of Angel Band,
a country-folk-bluegrass group founded by
his wife, Nancy Josephson, after the couple
moved to Wilmington.

The sound of caps pfsssting off bottles of Heineken is frequent at Genelle’s Bakery & Cafe, where servers slide plates of curried chicken to patrons across the blonde oak bar of the dining room.

Onstage, five guys, all within 10 years of Bromberg’s vintage, are going through the pre-jam motions. After the drum kit is assembled, the microphone stands adjusted and the guitars plugged into the amps, the music begins.

It’s an open jam session, so drummers and bassists casually switch off between sets. Several guitarists and a harmonica player genially share solos. Through it all, the playing is proficient, even if the vocals are a little ragged.

Around 8 p.m., a guitarist invites non-regulars to join in onstage. Bassist Ken Belmont happily relinquishes his spot to latecomer Bobby Baker, who steps in with his 1969 Fender Precision, taking the lead on vocals for a number before stepping back.

Belmont, who drives from Dover to participate in the weekly jam, began playing bass in 2001, so a regular opportunity to perform, learn and make mistakes with a group is something he values.

Bromberg, Belmont says, plays a special role in all this, not only as the agent who convinced several downtown venues to host such events, but as a resident teacher, mentor and fellow player. Bromberg counsels musicians on what to play, as well as what not to play—that is, where to leave pauses that mightily increase a solo’s impact.

Belmont tells of Thursday jams when performers have appeared out of the night with unexpected instruments, like a trumpet or saxophone, then stepped front and center to blow the audience away. During these jams, there is no phone-in voting, no perfomance-ending buzzers, no rendering of opinions from judges. There are only the audience and players. Sometimes the newcomers return to play again. Some nights they disappear into the darkness, content to have taken a turn.

Throughout there is Bromberg, graciously, modestly welcoming all, which, for a new player, Belmont says, can make the difference between choosing to play for others and choosing to play alone in the basement.

“There’s a feeling of camaraderie here,” he says. “You leave here and you feel like you’ve really been a part of something.”


David Bromberg and Angel Band performed at the
2007 Philadelphia Folk Festival.

In many ways, wanting to be part of something is what brought Bromberg and Josephson to Wilmington—though it wasn’t his plan to mentor guitarists. His day job revolves around a stringed instrument of a different sort—the violin.

David Bromberg & Associates builds, repairs, restores, buys, sells, and appraises violins, violas and cellos. It sits at Market and Sixth streets, across the street from the Delaware College of Art and Design and down the block from the Christina Cultural Arts Center. Neighbors include a handful of discount stores, Paradise Caribbean Cuisine, Spicy Ladies Boutique and Coming Soon! signs for Buccini/Pollin Group projects.

But behind the wooden double doors of Bromberg’s shop is a different world, one of rich woods, fine strings and the sort of Old World craftsmanship that might seem more at home in New York City, London or Berlin. It is here that Bromberg, thanks to a longtime professional connection with The Grand Opera House executive director Steve Bailey and a generous economic development offer from the city, decided to move in 2002.

Upon Bromberg’s arrival, Mayor James Baker, a music scholar, recounted to him the storied musical history of Market Street.

“He said he missed that, so I thought I would try and reproduce that,” Bromberg says. “But you can’t just go around and say, ‘Hey, you need to have music,’ so I went around to the different restaurants and started asking them if they’d allow me to start a jam session.”

After several false starts, he discovered funky Café 4W5 at Market and West Fifth streets in 2003, where owner and cultural den mother Polly Koster was trying to encourage everyone to play downtown after dark. She was more than willing to offer Bromberg a place for jams. Tuesday became bluegrass night. Thursday was electric blues night. All players welcomed.

Plenty would accept the invitation before the café closed in April 2006. “People, honest to God, were driving from Phoenixville (Pennsylvania), Aberdeen (Maryland), New Jersey,” Koster says. “And some of them came every week.”

Her memories are legion. Café 4W5 hosted Bromberg’s 60th birthday party. There was the bass player who arrived one night with his son, wheelchair bound with cerebral palsy. There was the snowy Tuesday when Bromberg assured everyone that, if they had trouble getting home, they knew where he lived.

“He’s so kind,” Koster says. “As a result of him being there, a lot of musicians got together to form their own groups,” she says. Notables include teenage blues guitar sensation John Lippincott, leader of Johnny Duke and the Aces, and, of course, Angel Band.

“People who I think would not have ventured into downtown Wilmington, especially the area I was in, came, and that was a direct result of David,” Koster says. “But I don’t think he knows. He’s such a modest man. Fame did not go to his head.”

What did happen was that the music, so long almost absent from Bromberg’s life, began to return. He may have kept his presence at the jams limited to the prescribed three hours, but while there, he for the simple love of music—and an opportunity to impart that love to others.

Josephson knows this intimately. Attractive and vivacious, the magenta-haired leader of Angel Band had retired from the music business when she and Bromberg moved to Wilmington. After spending much of her young adulthood on the road with her husband and other artists, like Arlo Guthrie, she had turned her creative energy to visual art.

It was Tuesday nights at 4W5 that resulted in her return to performing. She joined a family of bluegrass singers, then formed her own group. Bromberg fulfills his old role as sideman once again for Angel Band, but has acknowledged that, as his wife’s band grows in popularity, he will eventually have to step aside to make room for a guitarist who is willing to tour.

It is, however, that willingness to admit that Angel Band will survive without him that underscores his overwhelming willingness to be the facilitator, to serve as human catalyst to the creation of so many other things.

His relationship to Lippincott, for instance, is one he describes not as mentor, but as friend. Certainly, Lippincott, who now attends the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, is younger and has seen less of the world and the music business, but Bromberg is quick to emphasize a respect that transcends age and experience, one that embraces the power of a shared love for music.

“I think that John Lippincott is a better guitar player than I,” Bromberg says. “What I told him the first night I met him was that if he liked, I would work with him, and I would never tell him what to do, but I would occasionally tell him what not to do. John and I have a friendship, and that’s the basis of our relationship.”

Between Angel Band and artists such as Lippincott, Bromberg has used his catalytic power to spawn new music by others in the folk and blues realms. But there is still that line that he treads ever so delicately between his professional life and his performing life—the one between the classical violin and the bluegrass fiddle.

Here is a man who deals daily with the handiwork of master craftsmen from as far back as the 1700s, but who is proficient in the music of the Appalachians played on what is essentially the same instrument.

“To have the benefit of a serious string shop, to have an expert about violins is remarkable and wonderful,” says Kate Ransom, director of the Wilmington Music School and one of the violinists with Serafin String Quartet. Ransom met Bromberg through his shop. Having been raised in what she calls a “culture bubble,” she knew nothing of his career as a professional musician.

“I really didn’t realize how famous he was as a brilliant folk performer,” she says. It was a year after meeting him that other friends clued her in to his significance. Since then, Ransom has developed a deep friendship with both Bromberg and Josephson that has led to a recent collaboration between Angel Band and the Serafin Quartet.

“That weds everything about my life to what they do with their lives,” Ransom says. “It weds the classical side of my life and my upbringing in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music, to bonding with these great music friends of mine together with my quartet together with David’s band and Nancy and her colleagues. I so admire what they do in their music making. The sounds and the soul of that music really resonate with me.”

The Bromberg effect, has, in a way, doubled back on itself. In inspiring so many others to make music, Bromberg returned to the studio for the first time in 17 years. Part of the inspiration was to record some of the songs he had learned while leading blind bluesman Revered Gary Davis around New York City in exchange for lessons.

Bromberg had begun adding the songs into his repertoire during his hiatus from full-time performing, and after discovering producer Marc Moss at his Elkton-based Target Studios on the heels of recording the first Angel Band album, decided to visit and lay down some tracks.

When Moss’ landlord raised the rent, he moved his operation to Wilmington, where he set up shop in the Baby Grand, just blocks from Bromberg’s shop and home.

“Try Me One More Time” (Appleseed Records), an intimate portrait of a man and his guitar, was up for a Grammy Award as best traditional folk album. Once again, its confirmation of Bromberg’s “new cool old guy” status. And for young musicians, it’s an important link to the past that needed to be on record, says Jim Musselman, founder of West Chester, Pennsylvania-based Appleseed.

“He’s the consummate musician because he understands so much music—blues, bluegrass, rock—and he understands so much about the roots of music,” Musselman says. “In many ways, David is the link to the old blues men, and he can pass that on to the next generation. Somebody like David, who can help young musicians, is providing an important link.”

 

 

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