Time catches up with David Bromberg
The slow return of David Bromberg

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 13, 2003) – David Bromberg’s career as a musician first came to a crashing halt in 1980. By that time he had enjoyed a decade-long sprint as a folk-rock sideman of the first-order, playing guitar, mandolin and fiddle on dozens of albums for people including Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Tom Paxton, Carly Simon and Chubby Checker. He had also enjoyed some fame as a cult artist and bandleader, noted for his genre-bending albums and concerts that embraced a wide swath of American roots music, including blues, swing, jazz, folk, country, ragtime and old-time.

But after moving to California from New York in the late-1970s, Bromberg found himself at a crossroads. In retrospect, he says what he was experiencing was simply burnout. But at the time, he thought he had come to the end of the road as a musician. So he basically up and quit.

“I never found people I enjoyed playing with on the West coast,” said Bromberg – who performs with his trio at the Mahaiwe Theatre on Thursday, August 21 at 8 -- in a recent phone interview from his home in Wilmington, Dela.

“I wasn’t practicing, writing or jamming,” said Bromberg, who was born in Philadelphia in 1945 and who grew up in Tarrytown, N.Y. “I thought that my days as a musician were over. I didn’t want to hang on by my fingernails and beat a dead horse.

“I didn’t think I was a musician any more. I didn’t recognize it as burnout. If
I had known that I was getting a little burnt out, I would have taken a vacation, and that would have been it.”

Instead, Bromberg followed an unusual path for someone seemingly at the top of his game, with over a half-dozen major-label albums to his credit and a few FM-radio hits, including a version of “Mr. Bojangles” – considered by many to be the superior version of the Jerry Jeff Walker tune -- and a collaboration with George Harrison called “The Holdup.”

“The only real cultural stuff … the only intelligent thing I found to do with my time -- was hanging around a violin shop,” said Bromberg. “So it made me sense to me to go to violin school.”

So in 1980, Bromberg up and moved his family to Chicago and enrolled in the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making. After graduation, however, instead of making instruments, he became a dealer, first as a wholesaler and more recently as the owner of a retail and repair business lured to Wilmington as part of an urban redevelopment project.

Throughout the late-‘80s and ‘90s, Bromberg performed sporadically – including one memorable show at the Berkshire Performing Arts Center in Lenox -- sometimes with his band and more often as a solo artist. But mostly he kept a low profile, somewhat ironically during a time when the wide-ranging musical palette he fashioned became something of a genre unto itself, sparking a radio format called Americana and sending artists like Lyle Lovett to the top of the charts.

How did Bromberg feel watching his format become a success on the pop and country charts, with artists performing for crowds of thousands at summer sheds and arenas two decades after he labored in semi-obscurity in folk clubs and musician havens?

“Musicians don’t pledge allegiance,” said Bromberg. “They play the music that they like. There are stories that I don’t doubt that when he was still living in Kansas City, Charlie Parker would sit in with Hank Williams when he came to town.

“Fans will listen to what they like regardless of labels. They will say they don’t like blues or country, but the people who enforce this are those for whom the categorization is important. I’m not blaming anybody, radio and press, that’s their job to talk about stuff.”

As for where his genre-hopping approach came from, he said, “I try hard not to be a musical dilettante. I play a lot of different styles and try to do it respectfully. I try and get something that is more a part of the idiom. There are any number of musical disciplines that at my advanced stage of ossification I can’t really get out of them what they deserve.”

Though he is comfortable playing fiddle and mandolin, Bromberg considers guitar his primary instrument. Inspired by the music of the Weavers and Pete Seeger, he picked it up at age 13 and never put it down. After graduating from Tarrytown High School, he enrolled at Columbia University, intent on a career as a musicologist.

“The idea to be a musicologist in college was a compromise,” said Bromberg. “I accepted my parents’ assumption that I would be a professional man. I loved music, and the only profession that would have involved music enough would be if I studied musicology and became a musicologist. I decided that that’s what I would do.”

Bromberg stuck it out at Columbia for a year and a half, but the thriving folk scene in downtown New York beckoned, and Greenwich Village won out over Morningside Heights.

It was in the Village where Bromberg kindled his on-again, off-again musical relationship with Bob Dylan, for whom he played on early-1970s albums including “New Morning.” The relationship was rekindled in the early-1990s, when the two worked together in Chicago on several tracks that were never officially released but are beginning to circulate among collectors.

“The first sessions I did with Dylan were really very exciting for me,” he said. “Working with him is always a pleasure. On many things he has a real clear idea of what he wants. He’s very straightforward in my experience. I haven’t worked with the guy who gives the cryptic answers to interviewers.”

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion warm up the audience for the David Bromberg Trio tonight at the Mahaiwe Theatre at 8. For tickets call 528-3394.

[This feature originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 21, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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