Bromberg is the raw deal
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 22, 2003) – There was little if any artifice in David Bromberg’s concert at the Mahaiwe Theatre on Thursday night, which is typical of the performer. Bromberg has always boasted an organic transparency, presenting himself, his voice, and his songs in the raw rather than gussied up or polished in any fashion.

Maybe it was the pressure to put a shine on his work that led him to opt out of the limelight just as his career seemed to be taking off in the late Seventies. Since that time, the singer and string wizard has favored a guerrilla approach to his performing and recording career, which now plays second fiddle to his primary work as a high-end violin wholesaler and retailer.

But Bromberg continues to get away with the raw deal because of his indisputable virtuosity. His fleet fingerpicking and his broad command of American roots music that seemingly knows no stylistic bounds is what made him a first-call session musician for the likes of Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr and Chubby Checker back when, and it’s what garnered him a significant and rabidly loyal cult following which, judging from the response on Thursday night, continues to worship at his altar.

And even if he’s lost half a step since his heyday, and even if his voice nearly quit on him two-thirds of the way through the show, Bromberg delivered enough of his trademark goods – the old-time country ballads, the bluegrass breakdowns, and the pained, she-done-me-wrong blues – to please his old friends and fans.

A couple of those friends even joined him on stage for most of the show. Bromberg brought with him his trio, featuring bassist Butch Amiot and fiddler/guitarist/mandolinist Jeff Wisor, but he called on a couple of longtime Berkshire acquaintances, including Billy Voiers and Arlo Guthrie, to sit in with the group, turning it into something of an old-time, back-porch jam session.

Bromberg broke out of the starting gate with a bluegrass medley of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” and a bunch of fiddle tunes that allowed him to establish from the outset that he still had his chops with some dizzying flatpicking. He switched gears for “I’ll Take You Back,” one of his signature acerbic blues, on which bent guitar notes answered his impassioned falsetto.

An intense, solo version of “Statesboro Blues” was a highlight, in which Bromberg subtly added some urban despair to the Delta lament. Voiers contributed soulful dobro solos on several tunes, and Guthrie passed the “sobriety test,” as Bromberg called it, in his unusual role as guitar picker and sideman for the evening.

Guthrie’s daughter, Sarah Lee, and her husband Johnny Irion, warmed up the crowd with a lovely set of their original and traditional folk and country songs, and even played a post-concert set back at Club Helsinki, which presented the evening’s show. In just a few short years, the two have grown tremendously as performers. They’re still young and finding their way, but already they blend their voices and personalities with the ease and style of great country couples like Johnny Cash and June Carter or Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Looking at them together on stage, one can easily imagine a long, fruitful career that will at some point see them establish themselves as the next in a line of first couples of country and folk music.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 23, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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