There’s a long list of musicians who go 10-15 years without recording, but a very short one of musicians who did by choice. Add David Bromberg to the latter.
Save for those who followed him religiously in the 1970s, it’s not a name that gets a lot of hearts racing. And in the “music career interrupted” category, it seems fans are more receptive to the return of musicians most people didn’t even know were missing. Singers like Vashti Bunyan, who went 35 years between records, and Pearls Before Swine leader Tom Rapp, who stayed away for 27.
The return of Bromberg, who will release his first album in 17 years today, is more akin to Jimmy Scott, Roky Erickson and Laura Nyro — cult figures who carried their own weight in their heyday and created distinctive bodies of work.
“This record is mostly my wife’s idea. She was recording her Angel Band at a studio in Maryland, which moved to down the street from where we live in Wilmington, Del., when the rent was raised. She encouraged me to go down there and record a tune or two,” says Bromberg, whose return to playing was initially in jam sessions at street fairs near his home. He would venture to the studio for a couple of hours at a time. After awhile, his wife said, “I bet you have enough to put out a record.”
“Try Me One More Time,” a collection of one Bromberg original and 15 covers, will be released by Appleseed Recordings, a label that has been built on the shoulders of Pete Seeger tributes and albums by older folk-rockers such as Donovan, Eric Anderson and Al Stewart.
“It’s a first recording in a long time and it should reach a fan base that has been there a long time,” says Appleseed prexy Jim Musselman. “The bad news is that he hasn’t had a record in 17 years and people aren’t necessarily looking for one.”
Last year, Bruce Springsteen dazzled many of his fans with a traveling entourage that brought together strings and horns, songs of bygone days that continue to be relevant and a sound that was unabashedly Americana. Few observed that Bromberg — a guitarist, fiddler and mandolin player with a jittery voice and a passion for American music who fell under the sway of Pete Seeger at an early age — made the same formula work for more than a decade. That was back when Springsteen was racking up sales with “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and, like Bromberg, delivering lengthy, mesmerizing concerts.
Bromberg was a unique presence in the 1970s — a brilliant guitarist versed in Mississippi Delta Blues, mountain music, bluegrass and AM pop, who saw no reason why he shouldn’t alternate between fiddle tunes, horn-driven bluesy romps and the occasional Phil Spector song. No album crackjed the top 100 and he had no bonafide hits, just a couple of songs to hang his Hat. One was about a stripper called “Sharon” and the other an ode to sleeping, having sex, going barefoot and drinking extensively (“I Like to Sleep Late in the Morning”).
He certainly had a following. There was a time when the Bromberg audience was big enough to fill Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center one year and Carnegie Hall the next — he alternated throughout the 1970s — and any time he played the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village, it was a guarantee the club owners would be able to pay the month’s rent from the night’s gross.
But the rest of the country was a different story. He came to Los Angeles to play the Troubadour in 1975 and despite being told the club had its best night in three months, they saw him as a New York act who wouldn’t necessarily be a strong enough draw the next time around. He was never booked there again.
That’s the part of being a musician Bromberg doesn’t miss. He was a relentless worker, spending the 1960s working as a session musician for the likes of Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr, guiding the blind blues guitarist Rev. Gary Davis around New York City and playing in the band of Jerry Jeff Walker. Once he went solo, he created a fierce pace: Between 1971 and 1980 he made nine albums — four for Columbia and five for Fantasy.
Then he quit. Moved to Chicago. Studied violin making. With enough knowledge in the mental bank, he became an appraiser of string instruments. He made a couple of recordings in the 1980s and gave the occasional performance, but he was locked into his routine as a family man and a businessman. In 2002, he left Chi for Delaware.
“I burned out — and I didn’t want to be told you have to be here on this date and spend this many months on the road. It just wasn’t worth it,” says Bromberg, 61, recalling his decision in 1980 to break up the band. “There are bunches of things I won’t do again. I made a record but it doesn’t mean I’ll set out on a 40-city tour. I’ll do some shows. And I’m not about to think about the next record. I’ve spent enough time in rooms with no windows. I no longer want to stress about music”
A recent winter tour that included shows in Santa Barbara, the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., and Joe’s Pub in New York was his longest in decades. Gigs are being penciled in toward the end of the year, including a Gotham Town Hall gig in November.
Like so many musicians who take a break, Bromberg is returning to music not quite sure where or how he fits in. In his prime, he weathered California singer-songwriters, corporate rock, punk and disco — and avoided the label of Next Big Thing — but was never sufficiently recognized for contributing to any specific genre. The Blues Police and the Bluegrass Police both had it in for him, and while had a fair share of Deadheads in his fan contingent, he never sacrificed the bracing intensity of his music to appease a party crowd.
Getting back into performing has gone a long way toward changing Bromberg’s impression of himself. A performance with Tony Rice, the guitarist who has written the book on how to play bluegrass over the last 30 years, was a pleasant eye opener.
“Tony is scary good — I’m intimidated by him. But he said he liked my playing. We did a show together and he was watching what I was playing. I’ll never be able to do what he does, but I felt respected.”
Martin Guitars recently issued a David Bromberg model guitar patterned after one of his favorite guitars and they sold out the entire run. (The model had a list price of $5,600). “I started to wonder, ‘when did I become cool?’ I still don’t think I’m there yet.”
On “Try Me One More Time,” Bromberg sticks to the acoustic folk and blues music he played in Greenwich Village in the mid-1960s. he started the recording process with a Gary Davis tune he hadn’t played in 25 years, songs by Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson, a cover of Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” a pair of instrumentals and self-penned title track, a tune he wrote 30 years ago.
“It’s my idea of a field recording,” he adds.
Musselman says his mission is to provide artists with sufficient financial backing so they feel comfortable making a record. It’s no get-rich-quick plan: His album with Donovan, “Beat Café,” sold about 20,000 copies, for example. But it has been profitable and Appleseed’s albums — 86 released over its 10-year history — appeal to an older crowd that still buys CDs and doesn’t necessarily shop for downloads.
“The industry discriminates against older artists,” Musselman says. “I feel some till have something to say and I set up this label to celebrate these musicians. This is a record of one man and one guitar. In this time (of audio clutter), it’s pretty fascinating.”