By Emily J. Weitz
David Bromberg is a name you would know if he wanted you to. The Grammy-award nominated musician was a rising star in the 1960s, and played in concerts and on albums with the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and pretty much anyone else you can think of that epitomizes that era in music. But after a decade of rocking crowds all over the world with his big band, Bromberg decided he had had enough of the music scene. In 1980, he called it quits.
“I got burned out,” says Bromberg. “I concluded that I was no longer a musician. I didn’t want to drag myself onto the stage and do a bitter imitation of something I used to love. I wanted another way to live my life.”
From the first words Bromberg speaks, you can tell he’s a thoughtful man. Before he got famous, Bromberg went to Columbia University to study musicology. He was always interested in the intellectual side of music.
“I found intellectual stimulation in a violin shop,” says Bromberg. “I decided that I wanted to be able to pick up a violin and be able to tell when and where it was made. And that’s what I do.”
Bromberg was on the phone with me from his violin shop in Maryland, where to this day, he constructs and fixes instruments from all over the world. Famous for his guitar playing, he always played numerous instruments, and one of them was the fiddle. Work in the shop has kept him connected to music without being carried away in the music scene. But when asked if he felt that this kept his music pure or allowed him to go deeper into it, he wouldn’t go that far.
“A lot of things about my approach has changed,” he says of his musicianship now versus in his younger years. “There are things I could never do in the old days that I can do now. I can’t play as fast as I used to, but I sing a whole lot better. Go figure.”
In 2007, Bromberg came back on the scene with the release of “Try Me One More Time.” After time away, he was ready to approach music from a different perspective. On being back in the studio, though, Bromberg was lukewarm.
“I can’t say I deeply missed it,” he says. “But I had a lot of fun doing that record. It was the easiest record I ever did, and it got nominated for a Grammy. Why didn’t they tell me before?”
There’s something about Bromberg that makes it seem like almost a happy accident that he is so talented. He’s so normal, so easy to talk to, intellectually engaged. And then he just happens to be unable to avoid the spotlight for too long, because people want to hear his music.
After the success of “Try Me One More Time,” Bromberg decided it was time to do an album collaborating with some of his favorite contemporaries. “Use Me” features heavyweights in the music world, from Dr. John to the late Levon Helm, from Los Lobos to John Hiatt.
“Some were people I’ve known for a long time I knew I would enjoy working with,” says Bromberg, “and others were people I always wanted to work with who knew my music. And we knew where our musics crossed.”
This intersection was important in planning collaboration, because Bromberg has a broad palette that spans genres. With his background playing with so many musicians, he was able to explore and push his own boundaries in different directions.
“It’s interesting,” he says, “I was a session musician for years, and I found all these different places where I could do things.”
Of all the musicians on “Use Me,” the collaboration that really surprised him was that with Los Lobos. He had learned that the band’s David Hidalgo had expressed admiration for him.
“That felt great,” says Bromberg, “so I called them and they gave me a great tune to do. It’s not the first thing you would have thought I would do. It’s a Mexican waltz and I had a lot of fun with it.”
The upcoming album, which comes out this fall, was produced by Larry Campbell, who Bromberg had worked with on collaborations with Helm.
“He said, ‘Let’s do an old fashioned David Bromberg album.’ He was arguably the only person who understood all the genres I liked to be involved with. We made an album with everything in it but the kitchen sink, and if we could have found that, that would have gone in too.”
Bromberg is looking forward to his upcoming gig at The Stephen Talkhouse, 161 Main Street in Amagansett, on Saturday, August 17 at 8 p.m.
“The first time I played there was before I stopped performing for 20 years,” he says. “It was scary when I first came in — just a bar with no stage. But it turned out to be a wonderful gig and I’ve always looked forward to it.”
For more information or to buy tickets go to stephentalkhouse.com.