By FERN BRODKIN
For 21st Century Media
David Bromberg is a living legend. The “Godfather” of Americana has a resume a mile long; he has performed and/or recorded with such notables as Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson and many others.
Bromberg immersed himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the 1960s. He landed jobs backing up Tom Paxton, Jerry Jeff Walker and Rosalie Sorrels, among others, and soon became a first-call session guitarist.
His big break came when he landed a spot at the Isle of Wight festival in Great Britain in 1970, where he performed for 600,000 people. That led to a recording contract with Columbia Records. His eponymous 1971 debut included the song “The Holdup,” on which he collaborated with George Harrison.
Over the next decade, Bromberg expanded on his folk and blues roots to include elements of bluegrass, ragtime, country and ethnic music. He formed a band that included horn players, a violinist and several multi-instrumentalists. He recorded a number of acclaimed albums and he was selling out concert venues. In 1980 he decided that he needed a change and he left the music business.
“The real reason I left is… I was burnt out,” said Bromberg in a phone interview from his store/office in Wilmington, Del. “At one point I was on the road for two years without being home for two weeks. That’s just too much.”
Bromberg and his wife moved from northern California to Chicago and he enrolled in the Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making.
“What fascinated me,” said Bromberg, “is how someone could look at a violin, viola, cello or bow and (without) looking at the label or brand because the labels and brands can frequently be false — just (by) looking at the instrument you could be able to tell when and where it was made and sometimes by whom. And that’s what I decided I wanted to learn. And that’s what I will be in the process of learning for the rest of my life.”
After two decades in Chicago, Bromberg and his wife relocated to Wilmington. He opened David Bromberg Fine Violins, a retail store and repair shop for high quality instruments. And soon he got the itch to begin playing music again.
“I decided to start some jam sessions here. I figured I’d endure them for a few months and then they’d live or die. But really good musicians started showing up, some traveling quite a distance. And I started enjoying playing. And I started to get some of my chops back, so I decided ‘what the hell. Why not?’
Despite not having performed or recorded in more than 20 years, Bromberg was still remembered and respected by his contemporaries. After releasing his solo acoustic comeback album in 2007 — the Grammy-nominated “Try Me One More Time” (Appleseed) — John Hiatt invited him to his Nashville studio to record. The result was “Use Me,” (Appleseed, 2011) which included performances by Hiatt and other friends like Levon Helm, Los Lobos, Tim O’Brien, Vince Gill, Widespread Panic, Dr. John, Keb’ Mo’ and Linda Ronstadt.
Last year Bromberg recorded “Only Slightly Mad” (Appleseed) with his big band. It was recorded at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, New York. It’s a return to his genre-bending albums of the 70s and 80s, and includes blues, bluegrass, gospel, folk, Irish fiddle tunes, pop and English drinking songs.
So now Bromberg has to balance his music career and running his store. When asked how that’s going he replied “poorly,” and laughed. “Ideally I’d go on the road twice a month for three or four days. But it never works out that way; it’s either more or less. But I suppose there is some balance in the end.”
Despite the challenge of managing two careers he says “I’m very grateful. I know very clearly that I’m a lucky guy. And I enjoy being a lucky guy.”
As for what to expect from Bromberg’s show at the Keswick Theatre, it will be a rare performance with his 11-piece band, which includes three horns and three back-up singers.
“If you want to know exactly what I’m going to play, I have absolutely no idea. I’ve never had a set list in my life,” says Bromberg. “Sometimes we rehearse various tunes and sometimes I just spring some on them.”
Mark Cosgrove, who plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar and mandolin plus sings in Bromberg’s band elaborated in an e-mail interview about playing with Bromberg.
“David isn’t looking for the same thing every night,” says Cosgrove. “He wants to have fun playing music and to him playing the same show two nights in a row is not fun. The band enjoys being stumped sometimes and we take pride in reacting well to surprises.”
Cosgrove adds: “He doesn’t think twice about featuring us during his show and genuinely takes pleasure in seeing us do well.”
Bromberg says “It’s fun for us, and I don’t see how it could be fun for anybody else unless it’s fun for us.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: David Bromberg Big Band with David Johansen of New York Dolls
WHERE: 8 p.m. Saturday, April 26 at Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside.
TICKETS: $35 – $45
INFO: Call (215) 572-7650 or check www.keswicktheatre.com.