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On the Road Again

Veteran multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg talks about his new record, the Dylan sessions and the value of church.



You may be unfamiliar with guitarist David Bromberg’s solo career, but there’s a good chance you’ve heard his playing.

A master multi-instrumentalist, Bromberg got his start in the 1960s studying guitar with the late Rev. Gary Davis, a renowned singer and guitarist, before playing the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village. Through the years he’s recorded with such wide-ranging, legendary artists as Jerry Jeff Walker, Tom Rush, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Jerry Garcia, Willie Nelson, John Prine and Levon Helm.

He toured regularly until 1980 and then, burned out from the road, decided to study violin-making and moved to Delaware with his wife. There, he opened a retail and repair shop, David Bromberg Fine Violins.

But the jamming bug bit him again and he started playing locally, eventually recording albums again and landing a Grammy nomination. His most recent work is 2013’s genre-bending “Only Slightly Mad,” produced by Larry Campbell, who worked with Bob Dylan, at Levon Helm’s barn studio. Style spoke with Bromberg briefly before his solo gig, scheduled for Thursday at Capital Ale House’s downtown music hall.

Style: Is this a pretty rare solo show?

Bromberg: These days I don’t tour as much. I realized I can take control of it — I don’t do as many shows and don’t go out for years at a time or years as I used to. These last few dates were with David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Larry Campbell and me. It was a lot of fun. We’re going to do more hopefully. … My guess is the Richmond show I will be playing a mixture of songs from my career. I’ve never planned a set, I just do what comes up.

How did your latest record come about?

All my records up to this point have been everything but the kitchen sink. And that’s commercial suicide. I asked Larry Campbell to produce an album of all Chicago-style blues. He said, “No, let’s do a kitchen-sink one” like the old-time Bromberg CDs. But I think that this one is the best by a wide margin, and I give Larry due credit.

You seem to be more comfortable singing these days.

It’s been gradual over the years. But the last few years it’s really been very pleasurable. It’s physically pleasurable, I enjoy it.

As guitarists age they lose a little dexterity. Do you use more rests now?

I’ve always used rests, ever since I worked with the Reverend. It comes out of the church. If you listen to B.B. King, he has said his tone was an attempt to duplicate the tone of Lonnie Johnson, and his vibrato was an attempt to duplicate something his cousin Bukka White did with a bottleneck. His choice of notes was absolutely his. But his phrasing is that of a preacher. And I think that informs the playing of my favorite blues guitar players — B.B., Albert, Freddie King.

And you got that experience with the Rev. Davis?

Well yeah, that introduced me to the feeling in the black church, where I was always made to feel very welcome. I went to some churches he didn’t preach at and heard some great preachers that really informed my guitar playing. Then I would go to Sam Goody’s in New York and I didn’t know what the hot gospel albums were, so I would pick out ones based on the covers. Man, I found some great records. I discovered the Staples Singers that way.

What was it like recording at Levon’s barn right after he died?

I’ve performed at a number of the Rambles. That was where Larry was most used to recording. It was very comfortable, I had spent a lot of time in that room, and it was great to see Levon’s things all around and feel that maybe he was there.

Do you remember much from the Dylan “New Morning” sessions?

One of the things was, Russ Kunkel played drums and he was spectacular — he plays drums like he went to church too. He is one drummer who has never played a beat he didn’t mean, plays rests beautifully. … “If Dogs Run Free” that’s not me, that was Bob. … I think I’m on most of [the tracks] — except the guitar player on “Day of Locusts” was George Harrison.

Will the traditional recordings you made with Dylan in 1992 — which some Dylanologists consider his great lost album — ever come out?

I think probably they will, but really it’s not up to me. For the future, eventually I’d like to go back into the studio with Larry Campbell. We keep adding tunes to the repertoire. But as far as my future, it hasn’t become clear yet what’s next. S

David Bromberg plays a solo show at the Capital Ale House downtown music hall on Thursday, Feb. 12. Tickets are $25. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show is at 8.


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