After 40 years in the biz, David Bromberg doesn't exactly come across like a musician who's moved in the same circles as Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jerry Garcia, Carly Simon, and Willie Nelson. But those and other superstars have availed themselves of his guitar skills. In fact, with his graying bushy beard and amiable way, he could easily be mistaken for a wizened rabbi, offering a combination of age and reassurance that belies his storied past. Responding to a compliment about his latest album, he confirms that unassuming impression: "Oh thank you," he says humbly. "I'm real proud of it. I like the thing."
Given that his early career took flight on the folk circuit while backing such venerable singer/songwriters as Jerry Jeff Walker and Tom Paxton, that humility seems to come naturally, even though the series of critically acclaimed solo albums he recorded throughout the '70s made him a candidate for stardom all on his own. Still, he abruptly retreated from the spotlight in the early '90s, changing his tack and becoming a full-time violin maker.
"I stopped performing for 22 years," he explains. "I got burnt out, and I was too dumb to realize I was burnt out. At one point, I was on the road for two years without being home for two weeks. Then later, after I was home for a while, I realized that I hadn't written anything, I hadn't practiced, I hadn't played with anyone. I hadn't touched a guitar. I interpreted that as meaning I was no longer a musician. I didn't want to be one of these guys who drags himself onstage and does a bitter imitation of something he used to love. There are enough of those guys around. They're no fun."
Bromburg then did something most guitar heroes would never consider. He started making instruments himself. "I decided I needed to find something else to do with my life that I would enjoy. The only place I found any intellectual stimulation was in a violin shop. I was fascinated with how some people can look at a violin and tell you where or when it was made. So my first step was to go to violin making school. I did that and I broke up the band. It was a sharp left turn. My career was going upwards, but one of the reasons it was, was because I was working too hard."
Bromberg's return to live performing was precipitated by a series of acoustic jam sessions he organized in his newly adopted home of Wilmington, Delaware, urged on by the city's mayor who asked his help in resuscitating the local arts scene. "Nowadays, my ideal is to go out for three or four days at a time on the weekend and that's it," he insists. "I don't do any gigs I don't think I'll enjoy and I don't go back to any place I didn't like. I don't do any late night club gigs, and to my surprise, I don't need to."
In 2007, Bromberg returned to recording after an absence of 20 years with Try Me One More Time, setting the stage for his most recent effort, Use Me, a brash, sometimes bombastic set of authentic traditional blues-based songs featuring a variety of big name guests -- among them, Dr. John, Levon Helm, John Hiatt, and Widespread Panic. "First off, it's not that they're guesting with me," he points out. "The fact they're performing on the tracks is the least of what they did. I asked each of them to write a song for me and then produce me doing that song. Use me! It's really extraordinary that each of these people said yes. I asked all these guys to use me and they all knew how to do it."
In fact, Bromberg was frequently used early on in any number of sessions with a veritable who's who of notable musicians. "I was a pretty good guitar player," he explains with wry understatement. "Somebody would hear me with somebody else and they would tell somebody else to book me, and I did a lot of dates. Some of them went well, some of them not so well. But the ones that I did well got me more gigs."
One of more famous employers was none other than Bob Dylan, who recruited him for the albums Self Portrait and New Morning. "He called me," Bromberg recalls. "I think I was a little intimidated. But only a little, and I knew enough to put it aside as much as I could. You can't perform effectively if you're shaking in your boots. I sometimes think that nervousness is an excuse for failure."
So what was the Bobster really like? "He was a guy," he replies matter-of-factly. "He was very cooperative and inventive. Every now and then, we'd just step out on the stoop and talk things over, and it was a very friendly, cordial thing. He was very forthright and direct, a real mensch."
Bromberg can also claim a rare songwriting credit with George Harrison, an unlikely collaboration called "The Holdup" that ended up on Bromberg's eponymous debut. "I met him in Columbia Studios... and he sang me one of my tunes, a song called 'Danger Man,'" Bromberg reminisces. "He told me he learned it from Bob. I was flabbergasted... Nobody had an idea we'd write a song together. We just did. We were both at a quiet family Thanksgiving dinner. It was my manager's house in New Jersey, and it was just his family, me and George. His daughter had a gut string guitar, and George and I, both being guitar junkies, passed it back and forth and we realized after a little while we were writing a song, and so we finished it. Some of the very best lines are definitely his. I came up with stuff, he came up with stuff, but for the life of me, I couldn't tell you who came up with what."
He pauses, reflecting on his trajectory which is moving comfortably at no one's pace but his own. "I've been a very lucky man in many, many ways."
David Bromberg performs at 8 p.m. on Sunday, January 13, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $35 and $45. Phone 954-462-0222. Visit browardcenter.org.
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