Some of the best advice I got as a graduate student at Princeton was from one of my dissertation advisers, the grand old Modern literature critic A. Walton Litz. “Write about someone you like, but don’t love,” said Walt. “If you pick someone you love, you’ll never finish.”
So, while I’ve enjoyed hearing Bromberg up and down the Hudson Valley, from Bearsville and Woodstock through his old home acres of Tarrytown, down to City Winery and Town Hall and venues in New York City, I’ve held off writing about him. Yet now I have reconsidered, because the last gig he did in the area was simply one in a million.
It was billed as a solo show, on the Saturday night after Thanksgiving at the Bearsville Theater: just DB himself. But that’s not what we got. From a crowded stage, around 8:30, Bromberg announced that his son had just gotten married, in Bearsville, and that as a present his band – the David Bromberg Quintet – had stuck around to play. That’s Bromberg plus Mark Cosgrove on guitar and mandolin, Nate Grower on fiddle, Josh Kanusky on drums, and Butch Amiot on bass. Artist and musician Nancy Josephson was there to add her voice to the mix – and as mother of the groom. Woodstock being Woodstock, Bromberg had a few talented friends in the area, too. Woodstock, Saugerties, and Kingston are the three points on what I think of as the skinny, but richest, Auld Triangle of exceptional and varied American music. For now-epic heroes like the late Levon Helm and Rick Danko, giants like Happy Traum and John Sebastian, and rising stars like Connor Kennedy, these hills were and are home. Bromberg waved next to him and said, “We’ll be joined tonight by Erik Lawrence on the reeds, and Jay Ungar on fiddle. And Larry Campbell … ” Bromberg paused, and grinned at his good friend (and, like him, a former Bob Dylan sideman) Campbell. “Larry Campbell on whatever the hell he wants.” Talk about a special, one-night-only, Bromberg Big Band.
It’s always a singular pleasure to see the musicians who other musicians, and real music lovers and scholars, turn out to hear. On this night at Bearsville, Traum was in the house – not to play, but to enjoy listening. Archivist Mitch Blank had road-tripped up from New York for the show. Familiar faces, friends and famous folks alike, were all over the room.
Bromberg and company opened with “Sharon,” that saga of the girl dressed in a scarf and a sneeze, who dances like her back has no bone. How does he make a slide guitar say “I want to [expletive deleted] you … right now” without a single word? I’ll never know, but it’s consistently excellent.
Bromberg is a truly unique bandleader. He sways his assembled troop with genial grace, standing well back from the mic and beaming as different musicians take a stroll. Along with Levon Helm and Phil Lesh, Bromberg is a performer who takes clear and evident joy in hearing someone else play well on a stage he’s sharing. Lawrence’s superb saxophones gave Helm’s Midnight Rambles a glorious blues-and-jazz soul for many years; he helped Bromberg’s songs turn even more into stripteasy rollicks and plaintive poems. Cuing Lawrence into a lovely instrumental, Bromberg said, “Talk to me, Erik.” On several songs, three fiddles were in the air at once: Campbell, Ungar, and Grower. Bromberg singled out Ungar with a simple “Play it, Jay.” At the end, “again,” he insisted. And “again.” And, yet a third time, this time with the audience laughing, and almost in a shout, “Again!” He would do the same with Campbell, too. As Campbell picked up his guitar and searched his pockets for a slide, Bromberg supplied one with an indulgent shake of the head. “Keep producing records, Larry,” he quipped. “Someday you will be able to afford a slide of your very own.”
The musicians headed offstage for a break more than an hour into the show. Bromberg, wiping his face with a towel, informed us that Mark Cosgrove would be in charge of entertaining us while he was away. Almost at the wings, Bromberg had a parting shot: “And he’d better not fuck it up, either.” Cosgrove, who has played for years now with the David Bromberg Quintet, sighed. “I wonder where they all go, when they leave me here,” he lamented, mock-wistful. In his solo flat-picking tribute to Doc Watson, he was note-perfect.
The show’s nostalgic turns were both present and past. “The Strongest Man Alive” is a new song from his most recent album, 2013’s Only Slightly Mad (produced by Campbell), which Bromberg introduces as an old English drinking song “which I wrote.” He encouraged us to step out to the theater’s bar, looping behind the glass divider to one side and behind the auditorium, to grab “an adult beverage” and chug along. Kanusky emerged from behind his drum set to add a fine vocal to the refrains.
One of the few twenty-somethings there had asked his friend, as they were purchasing their adult beverages before the show, whether Bromberg would “do that song about his summer job.” Of course he did, though I’d never quite thought of it that way. The rise of Bromberg’s voice on that first “And all the beer parlors all down along Main Street” always gives me a lump in the throat; I sniffled along with three of his best covers. Ian Tyson’s classic “Summer Wages” (1986) is a song Bromberg sings, every time, with power and beauty. Similarly, no one can bring such rich regret to Elizabeth Cotten’s eternal “Sugaree” as does Bromberg; the repetition of that “done and pawned” breaks your heart. And, in closing, everyone on stage unplugged instruments and stepped forward, forming a line across the entire front of the stage for “Roll On John.” The folk song, as recorded by Rufus Crisp on Folkways, was a standard in the coffeehouses when Bromberg learned it – long may he keep sharing it, here in his 70th year and well beyond, for young folks to know.
All photographs via David Bromberg.