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A Look at the Legendary Career of Blues Musician David Bromberg

Words by Mike Mettler.//Photo courtesy of David Bromberg

David Bromberg was away from recording and performing for 22 years. But since moving to Wilmington, he’s recaptured his love for both.

The times, they have indeed a-changed for inveterate road warriors like longtime Wilmingtonian David Bromberg.

The respected singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist looks forward to celebrating his 75th birthday in late summer, but he just might have to do it from home rather than out on tour as leader of the critically acclaimed David Bromberg Band.

“We’re all in constant communication, and everybody’s anxious to get back on the road,” Bromberg says over the phone from his Market Street home in Wilmington (a flight up from his day job, David Bromberg Fine Violins). “It’s still a mystery to me, but there’s no doubt the audience adds a lot to what we’re feeling with the feedback they give us.”

It’s understandable why the David Bromberg Band would love to get back in front of audiences again. In April, the group released Big Road (Red House Records), their first album of new music in almost four years. From the Nashville sound of “George, Merle & Conway,” a homage to the legendary songwriters, to the on-point ensemble improv of “Diamond Lil” to the haunting harmonizing of “Roll On John,” the key to the organic sound of Big Road lies in the way longtime producer Larry Campbell was able to capture the pure essence of Bromberg and his bandmates playing together live in the studio.

“The immediacy is the thing you always try to get when you’re recording,” Bromberg says. “Otherwise, it’s as dull as dishwater.”

To be sure, the live-off-the-floor feel of Big Road shows yet again why Bromberg isn’t resting on his laurels as he embraces the third act of his long and successful career.

What’s the ‘Holdup’ with George?

Born in Philadelphia on Sept. 19, 1945, Bromberg made his bones riding the wave of the 1960s folk and roots music boom, ultimately emerging as an artist to watch after displaying confidence and muscle across the nine songs on his self-titled 1972 debut album.

Subsequent collaborations with A-list artists like Bob Dylan, George Harrison, the Grateful Dead, Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt took place regularly in the ensuing years, establishing the man as both an admired recording entity and supremely reliable concert draw.

A spontaneous jam session with Harrison eventually transformed into “The Holdup,” a key track on Bromberg’s debut album featuring Harrison’s searing, signature slide guitar licks. On Thanksgiving Eve of 1970, Bromberg and Harrison were attending an intimate family dinner at the home of their mutual friend Al Aronowitz, a noted journalist and Bromberg’s manager at the time.

What started out innocently enough—“the only guitar there was a kind of beginner, gut-string guitar that we passed back and forth, but we weren’t trying to write anything,” Bromberg says—resulted in a track that one could almost retitle “Taxman, Part II” in reference to Harrison’s most biting song on The Beatles’ legendary 1966 album Revolver. Its lyrics declare that “tax time is coming” and “wealth is disease.” Bromberg wholeheartedly agrees by wryly quoting the following line: “And I am the cure.”

Bromberg is known for his unique takes on the blues and folk, and worked as an in-demand side man to many of music’s biggest names./Photo by Andy Rogers

“The Holdup” displayed a somewhat different resonance when Bromberg recut it with four members of the Grateful Dead for his 1974 album Wanted Dead or Alive. Featured on that repurposed track was the Dead’s de facto leader, Jerry Garcia. Bromberg had spent time alongside Garcia during upstate New York’s Woodstock music festival in August 1969. “We shared Jerry’s teepee there, and for some reason, I ended up in it during the rainstorm,” he muses. “I had a dobro, and we just played guitar together for the whole rainstorm. It was fun!”

Bromberg had a much bigger crowd in front of him when he accompanied folk singer Rosalie Sorrels at the second Isle of Wight Festival a year later on Aug. 26, 1970. Many of the 600,000 in attendance were non-paying concertgoers who had gained entry by breaking down the fences around the festival grounds.

“Although it’s counterintuitive, the truth is an audience that didn’t pay is much harder to satisfy than one that did. And that audience booed a lot of people off the stage,” he says.

Luckily, Bromberg won over the crowd by playing “Bullfrog Blues,” a lengthy, humorous tune suggested by Sorrels in the middle of her set. Another reward appeared almost immediately afterward.

“When we came off the stage, the promoters asked me to come back at sunset. I asked them how many songs they wanted from me, and they said, ‘Do an hour.’ And I got encores!” Bromberg exclaims, chuckling heartily.

What about Bob?

Bromberg also found out via Harrison that none other than Bob Dylan was one of his biggest admirers, thanks to Bromberg seeing the ex-Beatle play one of his own songs right in front of him.

“I asked George where he learned [my song], and he said, ‘From Bob,’ and that really amazed me,” Bromberg recounts with a laugh. Did he ever ask Dylan about why he had shown one of his songs to Harrison? “No, I never thought of bringing it up.”

In due course, Bromberg wound up playing on a trio of Dylan albums himself: 1970’s Self Portrait, 1972’s New Morning, and 1973’s Dylan. Some of that era’s outtakes have since been released on a few different volumes in Dylan’s ongoing Bootleg Series.

“Most of those outtakes were just me and Bob in the studio without the overdubs. He stripped some of those tunes back down. And then I produced some tracks for him in the ’90s,” he says. Bromberg is somewhat skeptical about whether every song the pair did together in 1992 will see the light of day, seeing how only two of them have been released to date. “No, some of them will never come out. Some of them weren’t worth putting out. We just didn’t get ’em right.”

Bromberg feels Dylan often keeps his best material in the bank until much later: “The rap is—and there’s at least a little truth to this—that on every album, Bob withholds the best tunes.” He cites as a prime example “Blind Willie McTell,” a deep, atmospheric track cut during the 1983 Infidels sessions produced by then–Dire Straits bandleader/guitarist Mark Knopfler, which wasn’t released until almost a decade later. “It may be the best thing he ever recorded that I’ve ever heard.”

We’ll be back after the break

Bromberg eventually grew weary of the demands of the road, and in the late 1980s, he decided to take a break. It was a break that would last more than two decades.

During that time, Bromberg and his wife, visual artist and singer Nancy Josephson, found the resolve to move down to Wilmington. “We wound up here because my wife and I didn’t think we could afford to go back to New York City, where we loved living,” Bromberg concedes. “We decided to find another place that would maybe be marginally warmer than New York—but we’re not Southerners, so we didn’t want to go south. At the time, I had a friend who was here in Wilmington, so it didn’t seem like a big to-do to make the move.”

Wilmington also provided a fine home base for the artist’s growing violin collection and the consequent opening of David Bromberg Fine Violins at 601 N. Market St. (The physical shop had to close at the end of March due to the ongoing pandemic, but Bromberg and his staff continue to offer appraisals, restorations and repairs as warranted.) The other critical result of this move was giving Bromberg the impetus to rekindle his love of performing.

“It was really Wilmington that got me playing again after 22 years,” he admits. In fact, it was James M. Baker, Wilmington’s mayor from 2001 to 2013, who convinced Bromberg to return to the stage.

“I had lunch with Jim Baker a couple of times,” Bromberg recalls. “He was a big jazz fan who also just loved music. He said there used to be live music all up and down [Market Street], and he would love to see that again.”

Bromberg performing in 2017./Courtesy of David Bromberg

What resulted were recurring jam sessions with musicians who traveled far and wide just to play with him in the city. This success, combined with the recording of his Grammy-nominated solo album, Try Me One More Time, in 2006, prompted him to consider getting back on the road. But it wasn’t as easy as just picking the guitar up again. There was, he says, what one might call a bit of a re-learning curve.

“It wasn’t like starting from the beginning, but there was an awful lot of practice involved,” he concedes. “At first, I couldn’t gain any speed [on my guitar] at all. Eventually, I got quite a bit of it back, and then I began playing a little differently. The thing that really made the difference for me was I really started to enjoy singing again—and I sang a lot better. I found I enjoyed the physical sensation I got when singing, so that helped my music quite a bit, I think.”

Strings ’n’ things

Parallel to his career as a musician and dealer in fine instruments, Bromberg had amassed a collection of more than 260 violins made between 1848 and 1950, a feat that took him more than 50 years.

After a few years of intense negotiation, it appeared the Library of Congress would purchase what came to be known as the David Bromberg American Violin Collection and preserve it in full in their official music department. Unfortunately, due to an administrative change, that plan has since fallen through the bureaucratic cracks.

“The Library of Congress thing is not going to happen,” Bromberg confirms with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “What happened was, the new people are never interested in what the old people were—but we didn’t learn about that until it was all over. And that’s a shame, because I’m going to have to break up the collection. It represents my life savings, so I have no choice.” (If fellow Delaware residents want to help Bromberg maintain full ownership of this historic collection, they can go to his website, which is noted at the end of this story, for more information about how to do so.)

Regardless of the bad taste the collection experience left in his mouth, Bromberg still loves hearing bandmate Nate Grower play fiddle next to him onstage and on Big Road, especially since he feels it’s “the instrument that’s closest to the human voice.”

On the road again

While no one knows for sure when live gigs will resume and how audiences will be able to congregate, Bromberg can’t wait for the chance to return to his live schedule. “I miss it,” he says. “I enjoy performing and playing with my colleagues in the band. I’m proud of this new record, and I miss playing its music with them.”

When reminded of a key lyric in the titular song “Big Road”—“I ain’t going down that big road myself”—may have a deeper resonance the next time he plays it in a roomful of people, Bromberg responds, “I interpret the big road in that line as being the big road of life.”

Bromberg’s current band from Big Road./Photo by Ria Burman

Bromberg isn’t one given to offering up what he calls “overview statements” about his career and artistic legacy, but he does allow that he has had some impact on the upward trajectory of the popular music born and bred during the last half-century or so.

“I don’t think I realized it at the time, because I’m too busy looking at the trees to see the forest,” he concedes. “And that’s also the story with Woodstock. I couldn’t see the forest.”

Even so, the trees Bromberg can see are clearly in full bloom, following the man’s lifetime on an artistic road well-traveled.

Learn more about David Bromberg at davidbromberg.net

Published as “Back on the Big Road” in the July 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.