David Bromberg – Picking and choosing
“Not many people at the age of 25 are content to be who they are — but I’m at the point where I’m pretty happy to be myself. And that’s the difference.”
— David Bromberg
“I didn’t want to be one of these guys who phones it in,” David Bromberg says, just before boarding a plane to go play music again, which is news. “I thought the best thing for both the people who paid money to see me, and for me, would be to stop…not to beat a dead horse. Well, it wasn’t really a dead horse — but I didn’t know that then.”
Some performers talk about taking a breather, and it turns out not to amount to much of a break. Bromberg is now touring in leisurely support of Try Me One More Time, his first album in seventeen years, and until just lately, he had made but a handful of public performances since making that decision to call it quits 25 years ago.
Bromberg and his eclectic, appealingly loud big band filled clubs and college halls throughout the ’70s. His series of LPs for the Columbia and Fantasy labels mixed rock, blues, folk, twang and (sometimes) comic monologues, adding both country fiddles and jazzy horns to his celebrated electrifying guitar leads. They sold well and charted (seven registered in the bottom half of the Billboard Top 200 during the ’70s); the live How Late’ll Ya Play ‘Til? records were standouts, and the live shows themselves were always tough tickets.
Through the ’70s, into the early ’80s, Bromberg songs such as “New Lee Highway Blues”, “You’ve Got To Suffer If You Want To Sing The Blues” and “Sharon” were staples of freeform FM rock radio. Live and on vinyl, he displayed — like contemporaries Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal — a vast knowledge of American roots music, and was clearly able to deliver old acoustic blues or country songs exactly as first recorded, 78 record scratches and all. In practice, he always took them to a wilder and crowd-pleasing place. Bromberg sang and performed exuberantly, with a gravelly, charming, stream-of-New York-consciousness tone that was precisely his own — and true.
Along the way he was lead guitarist for Jerry Jeff Walker; co-wrote the manic then suddenly dulcetly Mexican tune “The Hold Up” with George Harrison; worked frequently with the Grateful Dead; played guitar on multiple Dylan albums; played dobro on the Doug Sahm & Band Atlantic recordings; produced records by everyone from Dylan (unreleased still) to blues legend Johnny Shines; and was considered one of the finest session guitar pickers available, a “musician’s musician.”
And he’d come to feel nothing like his idea of a real musician at all.
“I had a crisis of identity — and got really depressed,” he recollects. “When I stopped performing, my career was getting better, not descending; so that wasn’t it. It was just that I saw that if I wasn’t working constantly, I wasn’t growing musically. I was on the road a ridiculous amount of time — once, for two years without being home for two weeks. And when I’d get home, I wasn’t practicing, I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t jamming. I realized that I wasn’t a musician anymore.”
And so the pop-roots star who felt like he’d been going through the motions, and wasn’t sure who he was anymore, went in a different, though somehow congruent direction. Well out of the public eye, he set about mastering a skill still musically connected and more specifically manageable — identifying violins.
“If a guitar has a decal on it that says Martin or Fender,” Bromberg notes, “it’s most likely a Martin or a Fender. But a violin with a label that says Stradivarius could be anything! The only thing I can compare my fascination with how to identify a violin to is, maybe, identifying fine art; you need to learn the brush strokes. And I proceeded to study this for about 22 years. It’s kind of detective work in some ways, and it has one similarity to playing music: You’ll never reach the end of it. You’ll never know it all.”
After studying the making of violins, Bromberg moved on to identifying, acquiring and selling old European instruments to the professional trade, out of Chicago. He eventually opened a retail violin store in Wilmington, Delaware, where he and his family live today. Along the way, he developed an interest in generally ignored American-made violins, and, as a hobby, amassed a sizable collection of them.
“When I started doing that, everybody ‘knew’ that there weren’t any good American ones,” he laughs. “I just felt that that ought to be wrong, though I didn’t have anything to back it up! But it turned out that I was correct; people are beginning to realize that now, which makes me kind of a victim of my own success. It’s harder for me to add to my collection. A violin that I might have bought twenty years ago for $100 might be $10,000 today, and I can’t buy it.”
Bromberg had a bit of fiddle-playing background himself, and a few credits — with the Eagles, for instance. He’d learned from a couple of the best — Scottish fiddle master Aly Bain and country legend Vassar Clements, with whom he appeared on two celebrated western swing-oriented Hillbilly Jazz records in the ’70s.
“Vassar was one of the kindest, sweetest, most generous people on the face of the earth; I would want my son to grow up to be like him,” Bromberg recalls fondly. “The Hillbilly Jazz records were produced by a guy who was a successful jingle producer, and he produced them like jingles — all first takes. On many tunes, it was the first time I’d played them in my life. But people liked them — and with Vassar’s playing, how could you not?”