David Bromberg, thanks to Dylan, is a triple threat

Posted: September 25, 2013

Suddenly, it's a David Bromberg convergence: Work from his past and work from his present are hitting simultaneously.

Tuesday brings the release of Only Slightly Mad, Bromberg's third album after returning in 2007 from a 22-year hiatus from recording. Also out on Tuesday is Live at Caffè Lena: Music From America's Legendary Coffeehouse, 1967-2013, a three-disc compilation that includes a 1972 Bromberg performance of "The Holdup," an amusing song he wrote with George Harrison. And, a few weeks ago, Bob Dylan's Another Self Portrait (1969-71), the 10th volume in the Bootleg Series, came out, documenting sessions Bromberg did with Dylan.

"It was all accidental but fortuitous," Bromberg says of the timing of the releases. He's sitting in the office of his violin shop in Wilmington. He didn't even know the Caffè Lena set was coming out now.

Bromberg was born 68 years ago this month in Philadelphia, although he grew up in Tarrytown, N.Y. He learned guitar first, and later took lessons from the Rev. Gary Davis, the great blues player. Equally enamored of the blues and bluegrass, he also became skilled at Dobro, mandolin, and fiddle.

In the mid-'60s, he started playing the East Coast coffeehouse folk-music circuit, doing a combination of covers and his own songs at places like New York City's Bitter End and Saratoga Springs' Caffè Lena. He was a ubiquitous session player, too, playing with, among others, Jerry Jeff Walker, Tom Paxton, and Rosalie Sorrels, each of whom also appears on the Caffè Lena set.

Dylan's invitation to play in some sessions in early 1970 came as a surprise to Bromberg, then 24, who had yet to release his first album. "When he called me for the Self Portrait sessions, it was the first time I'd ever heard from him," Bromberg says. "I knew he'd been at some shows I'd played at, but it never occurred to me he was listening to anything that I did."

Bromberg did two sets of sessions with Dylan. The first was in New York in March 1970 for what would become the controversial Self Portrait album; the second was in Nashville that June for New Morning. Those two sessions also were the source of material for 1973's Dylan album, and also make up the majority of Another Self Portrait. Although liner notes position them as a single group, as "parts of a whole begun simultaneously," Bromberg remembers them as two distinct projects.

The first session, with just Dylan, Bromberg, and pianist Al Kooper, was almost all covers, ranging from old folk and blues songs to compositions by contemporary artists such as Gordon Lightfoot and Paul Simon. Producer Bob Johnston later overdubbed strings, backing singers, and other instruments. The results confused a public expecting a new statement from the voice of his generation.

Self Portrait may have been a reaction against that very expectation, but it was also Dylan returning to his roots as a coffeehouse singer, Bromberg notes.

"The thing that people missed when that record came out was that Dylan's first record only had one tune that he'd written," Bromberg says. "He had just started to write. He was a brilliant coffeehouse performer, if you listen to any of the old tapes. He was a great interpreter, and these were tunes that he liked, some of them fairly obscure, and it's great to hear him do them."

Bromberg remembers running into Harrison, newly an ex-Beatle, in the studio during the Nashville New Morning sessions, which featured a full band and backing singers working on Dylan originals. Harrison "sang me one of my own songs, and I was stunned. I asked him where he learned it, and he said he learned it from Bob. I had no idea Bob knew it!" Bromberg would eventually record that song, "Danger Man," on 1974's Wanted Dead or Alive, his third album.

Both Dylan and Harrison appeared on Bromberg's self-titled 1971 debut, uncredited, since Bromberg didn't want to seem as if, in his words, he was "standing on [their] shoulders."

Bromberg and Dylan worked together again, in Chicago in 1992, when Bromberg produced more than an album's worth of songs, again mostly covers, for Dylan, only two of which have been officially released (on Tell Tale Signs, Vol. 8 in the Bootleg Series).

Bromberg recorded Only Slightly Mad, released by West Chester's Appleseed Recordings, with producer Larry Campbell, who played guitar in Dylan's touring band from 1997 to 2004, and who now runs the studio of the late Levon Helm. Bromberg originally intended to do an album of Chicago blues-style songs, but at Campbell's encouragement, the project turned into what Bromberg calls "an old-fashioned David Bromberg album with everything in the world on it."

It's a broad mix of blues, bluegrass, folk, and gospel, mostly originals and a few choice covers, with moments of ironic humor, extemporaneous sermonizing, and deeply personal confessions, including a pair of love songs addressed to his wife, Nancy Josephson, the former leader of the Angel Band.

Some of the personal moments gave Bromberg pause, but he eventually embraced them. "After I thought about it, you know, that's the essence of doing it good, if you're really exposing yourself," he says. As he sings in the album's concluding track, "It's not enough to say things. You got to mean them, too."

Does this new album make a statement of some sort? Bromberg's answer sounds as though it could have come from Dylan back when they recorded Self Portrait.

"I have no idea what's relevant now. What I want to do is what I like. If there's a song that I like, then I want to sing it. If I like the way I sing it, then I want to record it. Relevance? I haven't got a clue. Never have."

Bromberg will be touring sporadically this fall, sometimes with his big band, but usually with a quartet or solo. On New Year's Eve, he will do a homecoming show at Wilmington's Queen, a block from his violin shop.

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