By Paul Liberatore
Marin Independent Journal
David Bromberg, the 68-year-old “Godfather of Americana,” lives and works in a handsomely refurbished 19th-century brick building in Wilmington, Del. Not bad digs, to be sure, but the place pales in comparison to what he calls the “rock ‘n’ roll musician’s house” he lived in when he was one of Marin’s resident rock stars in the 1970s.
“I had a great house up in the hills above Fairfax with a view of Mount Tam,” he said by phone from Wilmington one afternoon this week. “God, what a beautiful house. I’ll never live anywhere that nice again.”
For the past decade, Bromberg has shared a block-long loft with his wife, musician-artist Nancy Josephson, above his violin store and workshop in Wilmington, where the couple have been named “city ambassadors,” hosting weekly jam sessions that have brought live music back to their downtown neighborhood and resuscitated his moribund recording and performing career.
“When I moved to Wilmington, the mayor told me there used to be live music up and down the street where my shop and my home are on. And I figure the only way to get that started again was to start a couple of jam sessions, so I did. I thought I’d endure them for a couple of months and they’d live or die. Then some really good musicians started coming, some from quite a distance, and I started really enjoying playing music again.”
Before his late career revival, Bromberg hadn’t played professionally for 22 years.
“I stopped for way too long,” he admitted. “Twenty-two years, that’s two generations of people I missed.”
Bromberg’s disenchantment with the music business began when he was living in Marin. He’d been playing guitar since he was 13, and he studied musicology at Columbia. As a collegiate habitue of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the mid-1960s, he refined his guitar playing and also became proficient on pedal steel, dobro, mandolin and fiddle. Jerry Jeff Walker once said he was “the reason man created stringed instruments.”
With those kind of chops, he was soon a first-call session guitarist on scores of recordings, including albums by Bob Dylan, Link Wray, the Eagles, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson and Carly Simon. A sensational performance, singing and playing for 600,000 music fans at Great Britain’s Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 led to a four-album contract with Columbia Records. His self-titled 1971 debut boasted a songwriting collaboration with George Harrison, who played slide guitar on the tune, “Holdup.” Jerry Garcia and three other members of the Grateful Dead were guest musicians on the next two albums he recorded here.
Those records were all kitchen sink eclectic, amalgams of folk, blues, bluegrass, ragtime, country and world music before it was called that.
I remember seeing him play with his big band — featuring a horn section, a violinist and a passel of string players — for a wildly enthusiastic crowd packed into the Lion’s Share, a club that used to be a hot spot in San Anselmo. He had an ecstatic post-gig glow when I met him backstage after the show, but, underneath all the surface excitement, all was not well with him. By the end of the decade, the constant touring and the pressures of the music business had worn him down, sapping his creative energy.
“I left Marin at the end of 1979,” he recalled. “I was burned out, but I was too stupid to recognize it as burnout. I was on the road at one point for two years without being home for as long as two weeks. That will do it to you. And when I got home, I wasn’t jamming with anybody, I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t practicing. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who drags his ass up onstage and does a bitter imitation of something he used to love. So I decided to find another way to live my life.”
The other way of living his life surprised his fans and colleagues. He had begun collecting American violins in his mid-20s, so he decided to move to Chicago to study violin making, eventually starting a business appraising and selling the instruments. He would occasionally perform, but compared his involvement in music to a former major leaguer who plays softball once in a while at a company picnic.
In 2002, Bromberg and his wife were lured to Wilmington, where the city made them artists-in-residence and helped them establish his retail store and repair business. At the weekly jam sessions, his feel for performing started coming back.
“It was a lot of work to build up some chops,” he recalled. “I don’t feel I can play with the speed I used to, but I sing a whole lot better now, and that more than compensates.”
Since then, he’s recorded three albums. The first, 2007’s “Try Me One More Time,” earned him a Grammy nomination.
“My name had never appeared on the same page as the word Grammy before,” he said, still sounding astonished.
That was followed by “Use Me,” a concept album with songs written or selected by friends like Dr. John, Keb’ Mo’ and Linda Ronstadt. He also went back on the road, but this time on his own terms, reuniting with his big band and playing in smaller ensembles. When he plays at Sweetwater Music Hall on March 21, it will be with a quintet.
Two years ago, his comeback, not to mention his life, were threatened when he felt a tightness in his chest while touring in Japan and Italy.
“I had an 85 percent blockage in my arteries that I had no idea about,” he said. “I had three stents put in. And all of a sudden, I had much more strength in my voice. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I probably had as much strength, but I didn’t know how to use it. After I got those stents, it was, ‘Holy cow.'”
Bromberg’s albums have always had a kind of zany humor to them. And his new one, “Only Slightly Mad,” is no exception. It’s a signature genre-bending Bromberg album, but there is a hard-won wisdom in some of his songs, and an inspirational message in the gospel flavored original, “I’ll Rise Again.” In the middle of the song, he was moved to go on a free-form rap that sounds like a preacher speaking to his congregation.
“I may be down, but I know I’m gonna rise again, because I’ve been down in that pit when it seemed it had no bottom,” he says as the music swells. “And I’m sure we’ve all seen that pit. Maybe for some of us, it’s not as deep as for others. But for some of us it’s so deep it looks like there’s no way out. But I believe there’s a way out for everyone. It could be religion, it could be therapy, it could be money, it could be music. There are even hotlines. There are ways to get out. You just have to keep looking for the ways out. This is a beautiful world, and it’s a privilege to live in it.”
After he listened to the playback, he considered taking that part out.
“I realized I exposed a lot of myself in it, and I wasn’t sure I could handle having it on a CD that people would listen to,” he confessed. “Then I realized that when you take that kind of a chance, that’s when you do something good. You’ve got to let it out. So I did. I was talking from the heart.”