By TOM CHESEK
For a man who quit an established recording career in order to study the fine art of making violins, David Bromberg sure knows how to work a room.
A veteran sideman to Dylan, Ringo Starr and Jerry Jeff Walker, as well as a solo performer and bandleader of
more than 40 years standing, the bearded and bespectacled Bromberg may have kept a low profile through the so-called MTV era. But he didn’t sleep through the more recent recording industry implosion and its attendant rise of the Pod People. Rather, he took his boundary-busting energy back to the live stage, with Red Bank playing a big role in this master entertainer’s game plan.
The multi-instrumentalist and musicologist has made the Count Basie Theatre a crucial pit stop in his annual tour schedule for each of the last four years. For his Friday night show, Bromberg has some exciting things to promote, among them his first album in 17 years, “Try Me One More Time,” a solo set (nominated for a Grammy in the Best Folk Album category) that comes around full circle from his one man/one guitar debut album in 1971.
Ticketholders will also no doubt be interested in the fact that Friday’s show is scheduled to be recorded for a concert DVD release.
While Bromberg may take the spotlight for an unaccompanied number or two, it’s his role as bandleader and raconteur that prompted the New York Times to brand him “electrifying.” A performance by the 12-piece David Bromberg Big Band fireballs forward like a bull in a used record shop, tracing its own musical logic Bob Wills to Bob Dylan to Bo Diddley to Dave Dudley with station stops anywhere from Sam Cooke to “a bluegrass tribute to Ethel Merman.” Not to mention some fondly remembered originals from his vintage albums (some of which featured great cover art by such famed cartoonists as B. Kliban and Gahan Wilson) and a lot of things that you thought had been written by the Grateful Dead, Patsy Cline, Cab Calloway or even the Clash.
Speaking from his office at David Bromberg Fine Violins (the Wilmington, Del., shop where he spends much of his off-the-road time), Bromberg opened up to redbankgreen about his recent experiences in the belly of the Grammy beast and his special rapport with the Basie.
You’ve returned to the Count Basie every year since 2005, so the place must really hit the spot for you. How did you settle on the Basie for the recording of your DVD project?
DB: My manager chose it, actually. It’s one of a number of venues we’ll be doing some recording at. It’s a cool old place; good size, nice acoustics. The people who run it have done a great job, and they make you feel very comfortable when you’re there.
How comfortable was it for you to attend the Grammy awards in L.A. a couple of weeks back? Did you wear a tux?
DB: Yes, and my wife designed a dress that was featured in the paper. The dress had a pattern of oscilloscope representations of the songs on my CD. Really, I knew that Levon (Helm, winner of this year’s Best Folk Album honors) would win; he’s a deserving guy, and I wanted to be there to applaud him.
Still, it must be weird to be there in the industry epicenter after having spent so many years living quietly in Delaware.
DB: Los Angeles is a city where you’re constantly reminded of where you are in the pecking order of things. If you’re in the entertainment business and you’re out in public, all the L.A. people assume you’re striving to be on top. I had gotten that feeling from people in the past, but not so much this time.
You must be pleasantly surprised at the reaction to the new album, after so many years’ hiatus. You seem to have a sympathetic label in Appleseed Recordings, and that relationship must have eased your re-entry into a scene that’s much different than when you last were part of it.
DB: Record companies seem almost superfluous these days, although not for me. I’m happy to work with Jim Musselman and Alan Edwards at Appleseed. I consider them friends. And I’m working now on some followup ideas for them a big band project, one with the quartet, a country blues…
How did you arrive at the solo acoustic format for your big return?
DB: One of the reasons I made the CD was a conversation I had with Chris Hillman; he thought I should play some of the old songs I used to do with Reverend Gary Davis. I learned directly from the Reverend; it was an honor to know him, but back when the Reverend was still alive, it was a question of “why do the Reverend when the Reverend did ’em perfectly himself?”
You came of age in the ’60s and ’70s with a bunch of contemporaries who took a scholarly approach to bluegrass and the blues; you listened to a lot of different music and processed all those influences in some new and passionate ways. Whereas the old bluesmen and hillbilly cats probably went their lonesome ways without worrying much about what the other guys were doing…
DB: No, the old blues players listened to a lot of different music. When the [musical folklorists] Lomaxes found Muddy Waters living on a plantation, they looked through his record collection as well as the local jukeboxes, and they found songs by Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry! They might not have even known whether these singers were black or white, and it didn’t seem to make a difference.
I had the privilege early in my career to produce an album with Johnny Shines, who knew Robert Johnson very well. He told me that Johnson was just as likely to sing Bing Crosby as his own songs; he was a professional entertainer, and he sang what audiences wanted to hear.
You’re quite the entertainer yourself; you’re stepping out onto that stage in Red Bank just one night after Wayne Newton is there, and you’ve got the same winning way with a crowd you work an audience with the same dexterity you display on the strings.
DG: Thanks; I do have a lot of fans on the Jersey Shore, and we do a different show every time. No set lists it’s better that way.
Tickets for the 8p Friday show are priced from $25 to $55, and can be purchased online from the Count Basie Theatre website.