David Bromberg on B.B. King, Mavis Staples, The Band, and California Honeydrops
David Bromberg knows what makes a great show. He once played solo and gave a stirring rendition of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” before 600,000 people at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival in Great Britain. He also recently teamed with Larry Campbell and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo for a handful of successful acoustic shows. But, like many long-time concert goers, Bromberg says it’s difficult to remember concerts from many years ago. Nonetheless, the veteran musician cannot forget what he witnessed sitting in church pews many moons ago.
“Many of my favorite concerts were gospel ‘performances’ in churches,” he says. “I put performances in quotes, because I’m referring to sermons. I realized after going to various churches in African-American communities in the late ’60s that preachers had a great influence on the guitar playing of my favorite blues guitar players.
“B.B. King has said that his tone is an attempt to duplicate the tone of Lonnie Johnson,” he continues. “I can hear that. B.B.’s choice of notes is his own. His phrasing – and the phrasing of Albert King and all the best blues guitar players – comes straight from sermons. Good preachers use pauses and dramatic phrasing for emphasis. Pauses and changes in dynamics, or volume, are like rests in music. Any good music teacher will tell you that the rest is an important musical note. Rests and dynamics give importance to the notes that sound. The absence of these things makes music that I find boring. I can tie the church experience to a B.B. King performance at the Apollo in the late ’60s. That might have been the ‘eureka’ moment, when I put the church and B.B. together. To this day, there are times when I’m about to play a solo, when I think ‘I’m going to preach this one.’”
Bromberg, whose latest album – Archives Volume 1, 1969-1979 – is a compelling aggregation of unreleased live and studio recordings, also points to a Mavis Staples concert at the Kate Wolf Festival about five years ago.
“It was spectacular,” he says, “because it moved me as Mavis and her family always have moved me. The great gospel singers are totally committed to what they sing.”
Bromberg says the best rock and roll concert he can remember was “The Last Waltz.” Held on Thanksgiving Day in November 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom, it was billed as The Band’s farewell concert and featured Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, and many other special guests.
“Of course, it also included Mavis, but Van Morrison, Dr. John, and The Band were all wonderful and moving in their own way,” says Bromberg.
“There was a more recent show that knocked me out,” he adds. “I saw The California Honeydrops at the World Café Live a few months ago, and they were spectacular.”