If you saw David Bromberg and his band back in the 1970s, the most striking thing about the show, besides the band’s technical prowess, may have been how much fun everybody seemed to be having.
Always playing without a set list, the band worked through an eclectic and lighthearted mix of rock, blues, bluegrass, novelty tunes, traditional songs and jazz. Bromberg, who plays his first show ever in Billings on Jan. 10, said in a telephone interview last week that the fun wasn’t just part of the act.
Only two or three times in those years was the show no fun, he said, and that was only because of sheer exhaustion. The band had a busy touring schedule, and Bromberg was a popular sideman and accompanist on albums for a who’s who of other musicians: Bob Dylan, Jerry Jeff Walker, Carly Simon, Tom Paxton, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Doug Sahm and more than a hundred others. He and former Beatle George Harrison even co-wrote a song.
But somewhere along the way, it stopped being fun. Bromberg burned out, he said, without really even realizing that he had burned out.
“The hardest thing about doing what I do is actually getting yourself ready to go out there and have a good time,” he said. He noticed that when he wasn’t actually on the road doing shows, he wasn’t practicing, he wasn’t playing, he wasn’t really doing anything that made him feel like a musician.
Rather than continuing to go out on stage and give a weak imitation of what he used to love, he gave up performing in 1980. And he stayed out, for 22 years.
But he didn’t give up music. He had become interested in the craft of violin making, and he opened David Bromberg Fine Violins in Wilmington, Del. The business is still going, and he has become an expert in identifying violin makers, who, unlike Martin or Gibson, tend not to imprint their names on their work.
“It’s one of those things where you’ll never know it all,” he said.
The business went well, and Bromberg stayed off the stage for two decades. Then he had a couple of lunches with Wilmington’s mayor, who told him that live music used to play all up and down the street they were on.
His curiosity piqued, Bromberg started a few jam sessions. Some outstanding musicians showed up, and pretty soon he decided that playing live music was fun again. He is 71 now, and he acknowledged that age and years away from playing took a toll on his guitar mastery.
“I can’t play as fast as I used to,” he said, “and it’s not necessary to do that.” Like other musicians, he has learned that the space between the notes can convey as much meaning as the notes themselves.
“Pretty much the best notes I play are rests,” he said. He said that legendary bluesman B.B. King, who died last year, learned phrasing by going to church and listening to gospel music, and Bromberg keeps that lesson in mind.
Besides, Bromberg said, technical perfection has never been his goal, although he admits that at times he has gotten pretty close.
“I’ve always made mistakes,” he said. “I’ve never been a perfect player.”
Audiences don’t come to concerts seeking perfection, he said. Instead, they want to hear music that moves them.
“Perfection is not necessarily the best thing to have,” he said. “I’d rather be moving and not be perfect.”
He also learned that even in disuse, skills don’t just vanish. When he and old band members got together again, they thought they would need two or three days of rehearsal. But after a few songs, they felt ready enough to knock off and have a drink.
“Our minds might not have remembered, but our fingers still did,” he said.
But if Bromberg never achieved technical perfection, he quickly became quite good. He started playing guitar at age 13 and eventually got lessons from another legendary bluesman, the Rev. Gary Davis. By age 19 or 20, Bromberg was playing solo sets in Greenwich Village that he now describes as terrible.
“I wasn’t that terrible a guitar player,” he said. “I was a terrible singer.”
But he kept at it–“I’ve always had more guts than brains,” he said—and eventually he met Steve Burgh, who was willing to play bass to Bromberg’s lead guitar in a duo called the Fabulous Torpedoes.
The rest was not necessarily history, but it did lead to a successful career and a growing demand for Bromberg to play with other musicians, including Dylan, this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. Bromberg also produced a few cuts of Dylan’s songs.
“Playing with Bob was the kind of thing I really like to do best,” he said. Dylan liked to finish a song with just one or two takes, which is how Bromberg likes to record.
Dylan, who has absorbed and played an enormous range of music in his career, has occasionally been accused of plagiarism, but Bromberg dismissed those allegations.
No artist can become really good without studying what came before, he said, and some of that is bound to stick. But Dylan obviously wrote too much wildly original and outstanding music to be a plagiarist, he said.
Bromberg said he enjoyed accompanying other artists, adjusting to a role in which his main task was to make the main musician sound good.
As an accompanist, he said, “The idea is not to show people what you can do.”
In his own music, Bromberg said, he always wanted to play just about everything he heard on guitar.
“I used to dream music, sometimes all night long, usually all night long,” he said. When he was playing at his best, he was concentrating so hard that he wasn’t really thinking at all, he said.
Bromberg said that music is quite literally a language all its own. When he first started playing solos, he found that he struggled to go from an instrumental back to lyrics, like a polyglot suddenly forced to switch languages. He learned to start thinking eight to 12 bars ahead to prepare himself to switch to another language: English.
He also learned to sing better, drawing on advice from Phoebe Snow, who was known for a bluesy contralto that covered a range of four octaves. Snow taught him how to open his throat to let a richer voice emerge.
“You had to try to yawn as you were singing,” he said.
When he was ready to record again, in 2007, he turned to traditional music, some of which he learned from Gary Davis. When someone asked if he could remember those songs, Bromberg said, “I gave it a shot, and my fingers remembered.”
The album was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Traditional Folk Recording category. His latest album, released in October with the David Bromberg Band, is “The Blues, the Whole Blues and Nothing but the Blues.”
He fends off burnout now by limiting his tour schedule and by playing only in cities where he wants to play, mostly with a five-piece band.
“I’m looking forward to Billings,” he said.
In his earlier days, he played fiddle, mandolin and dobro, but now he sticks to guitar.
“When I pick up another instrument, my guitar starts to yell at me,” he said. He still plays without a set list, relying on the mood of the audience, the band and his own instincts to decide on the spot what to play next.
“I don’t try to take it apart,” he said.
The David Bromberg Band plays at 8 p.m. Jan. 10 at the Pub Station. Tickets are $36.