David Bromberg is a master of the blues and just about every other genre of popular American music. Tuesday he turns 78. To celebrate the occasion I want to revisit my comments after seeing him perform live over two nights in April 2022.
When my friend Tom Edelstein invited me to see him perform at the Dakota back in 2019, I only vaguely remembered Bromberg as the blues virtuoso I used to hear on the cool old KQRS back in the day. As I recall, the cool old KQ had Bromberg’s “I Like to Sleep Late in the Morning” (below) in regular rotation.
I couldn’t believe how good the 2019 show was. When he was scheduled to return for two shows that were postponed to April 5 (Tuesday) and April 6 (Wednesday), 2022, I bought tickets for the first night’s show. He opened with Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”
It turned out to be an emotional evening. Bromberg announced after the opening number that his friend Paul Siebel had died that morning. Starting with the second number, Bromberg played four songs written by Siebel that he can’t have had in mind to perform before he heard the news that morning. The packed house was both appreciative and, as the show proceeded, rowdy. “Long Afternoons” was one of the four Siebel songs he played. On Wednesday night he said this was his favorite Siebel song. I think he performs it with great affection in the recording below.
One of the highlights of Tuesday’s show was “First Time She Quit Me (This Month).” Is this a Bromberg original? The lyrics humorously exaggerate a classic blues theme.
I was impressed and moved by the show. The place was packed with rabid fans. We were excited by the opportunity to see him live again in a first-class venue. In 2019, the gentleman sitting next to Tom and me had seen David in years past at a small town in rural Wisconsin and at the ramshackle Cedar Cultural Center on Minneapolis’s West Bank.
When I caught up with Bromberg in 2019 I wondered where he had been. I had completely lost track. Trying to retrace the steps of his career, I discovered that he took a long-term break from his performing career starting in 1980. Mark Deming’s Allmusic profile notes that “in 1980 Bromberg decided he was tired of the rigors of touring and took a sabbatical from the road, occasionally playing sessions for friends and staging occasional live shows but devoting most of his time to studying at the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making in Chicago.” According to the bio he has posted, his sabbatical amounted to “a period of self-imposed exile from his passion (1980-2002)[.]”
Some time in that period he opened David Bromberg Fine Violins in Wilmington, Delaware. He has retired from that business and handed the shop over to Teal Wintsch. He unsuccessfully sought to sell his lovingly acquired collection of more than 250 violins to the Library of Congress in 2016. Jon Kalish told the story for NPR’s All Things Considered here. Ryan Cormier has more on Bromberg’s collection (“this is my life savings”) for Delaware Online here (and the sequel is here).
What else? He has put together a fabulous band. The extended versions of the songs he plays live show off their talents. He opened the 2019 show with Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues.” The live version below derives from a 2014 eTown episode.
I thought the highlight of that 2019 show was “I’ll Take You Back.” He really kept it going that night, both vocally and instrumentally. As I listened to it in 2019, I was drafting additional verses in my head. The relatively condensed version below also derives from the 2014 eTown episode.
Bromberg has kept the band on display in the eTown episode together for an unusually long time. It was the same one he had with him back in 2019 and again in 2022.
The encore for his Tuesday evening show was something special. The band came back out with Bromberg as they all took positions at the front of the stage with the microphones behind or beside them. Performing a cappella without amplification — that was one way to quiet the crowd — they sang “Roll on John” (not the Dylan number), a song I had never even heard of. It was stunning. In the video below they play it live in the studio with acoustic instruments for the DVD accompanying Big Road (2020), his most recent recording.
When I saw guitarist Mark Cosgrove setting up onstage, I went up and introduced myself. I told him I had attended the show on Tuesday (sitting right in front of him) and wondered if they had just rehearsed the Paul Siebel songs after hearing the news of his death that morning. Smiling, he asked, “Did it sound like it?” No, it didn’t, but he confirmed that was the case. They worked them up that day. “It was an emotional day,” he added. I told him we could see and hear the emotion. He could not have been friendlier.
Bromberg played those four songs again at Wednesday’s show. He said that Siebel was several years older than he was, but they shared a birthday. They celebrated birthdays together for more than 50 years — “closer to 60 than 50 years,” he said. He added that the songs were “easier to do tonight” than they had been the night before.
Apart from the four Siebel songs, I don’t think Bromberg repeated a song from Tuesday’s show. And whereas Tuesday’s show accented his blues repertoire, Wednesday’s accented his folk, country, bluegrass, and gospel repertoire. The crowd was nevertheless just as rowdy as the evening before and Bromberg slapped them down as he always does. If you shout out a demand for one of his songs, he vows not to perform it.
At Wednesday’s show I took notes on the setlist and on the quoted comments. My notes reflect that he opened with “Sharon,” which he said a rogue Columbia promoter had turned into a number 1 hit on AM radio in Minneapolis in 1972.
He followed up the four Siebel songs with “Dark Hollow.” It’s a song I know only from the Grateful Dead’s covers of it. Bromberg turned it into a showcase to display the instrumental prowess of his band. In the video below he’s sitting in with friends, but it went like this.
He closed the set with the medley that begins with “an old English drinking song” he wrote.
Bromberg plays every form of blues music and makes each one beautiful in its own way. Yet he also adds folk, bluegrass, country, rock, and gospel to the mix. His shows provide a living lesson in the Cosmic American Music. I wanted to document these shows because I thought they were noteworthy and I couldn’t find anything about them online.
Let’s bring him back for an encore. I believe “I Will Not Be Your Fool” is his own composition.
This is his take on Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.” Bromberg had also backed Jerry Jeff on the album version released by Atco in 1968. Jerry Jeff is one of the many accomplished artists — artists ranging from Bob Dylan and George Harrison to the Reverend Gary Davis and Tom Paxton — who have enlisted Bromberg to work as a session player and/or sideman.