You may have been wondering whatever happened to talented blues/folk/bluegrass guitar player David Bromberg. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, Bromberg was a favorite at folk festivals and as a headliner at clubs like the Bottom Line. His songs, often humorous stuff like “Sharon” and “Danger Man,” got a lot of radio play. Among the guitar-playing cognoscenti, Bromberg was considered a multi-faceted master of folk blues finger-picking, bluegrass flat-picking, and expressive electric guitar soloing. And he was one of the few performers who could effortlessly move between these different styles, combining them with a wry, witty onstage persona that audiences loved. What DID ever happen to David Bromberg?
Turns out, he took 22 years off. He went to school to become a violin appraiser, and instead of performing he’s been appraising violins, with a great deal of success. Believe it or not, for those 22 years he barely even touched a guitar. This was a man who studied with the great Reverend Gary Davis, and who represented a living link to America’s blues tradition, and he dropped out of the scene entirely!
“I was burnt out, and I didn’t know it,” Bromberg said from his Wilmington, Delaware violin shop. “I would come off tours, and I wasn’t jamming, wasn’t writing, and I began to believe that I couldn’t play, that I wasn’t even a musician.” He sold his legendary guitar collection, which he estimates would be worth close to $1 million dollars today, for a scandalous $10,000. He admits, “I didn’t realize that I was just worn out.”
So what brought him back? Believe it or not, the mayor of Wilmington had a great deal to do with it. As in many cities, Wilmington’s music scene had atrophied, and the mayor wanted to try to revive it. Bromberg offered to lead informal jam sessions, and, to his surprise, found himself enjoying playing again. After 22 years, though, he had a lot of work to do.
“I had to work very hard to get some of my chops back. It was just lots and lots of practice.” But the strategy worked: the Wilmington jam sessions attracted some very fine players (doubtless drawn by Bromberg’s name), and Bromberg was reviving his playing skills.
Now, Bromberg has returned to recording as well. His latest release, called Use Me, is a collection of songs written and produced for him by a who’s who of blues and folk rockers, including John Hiatt, Dr. John and the late Levon Helm. Despite the fact that each song is very different, reflecting the diverse aesthetics of the various creators, the album hangs together very well. The only thing missing from the record is the humorous type of song that had come to be Bromberg’s trademark. According to Bromberg, this is a result of the process, having others write the songs for him.
“Humor is the hardest thing to take from somebody else,” he observes. “There was one funny song that was written, but I couldn’t get it to work. I went back and asked him for something more serious.”
On stage, however, Bromberg will doubtless thrill Westhampton with his playing and tongue-in-cheek style. For those who remember him before his hiatus, it should sound very familiar. Those who are just finding out about this musical treasure, once lost and now found, will find a unique and vital voice that knows how to unearth the antic energy that lies at the heart of the blues. David Bromberg is back!
The David Bromberg Quartet plays the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, March 2, at 8 p.m. Call WHBPAC 631-288-1500 or visit whbpac.org for more information.