I Can’t Do Anything But Me: A Conversation with David Bromberg

By Brent Thompson

Photo Credit: Doris Joosten

Some artists have a style that makes categorization next to impossible and David Bromberg fits that profile. Like Randy┬áNewman, Frank Zappa and Leon Redbone, Bromberg is a truly unique musical figure. As a solo artist and sideman, he has recorded with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, John Prine and countless others – while producing John Hartford’s groundbreaking Aereo-Plain album – in a career spanning more than 50 years. Aided by producer and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, Bromberg’s latest album, The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues [Red House Records], includes original material alongside renditions of songs by Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson and Ray Charles. On Monday, May 21, The David Bromberg Quintet will perform at WorkPlay. Recently, Bromberg spoke with us by phone about his latest album specifically and his musical legacy in general.

Birmingham Stages: David, thanks for your time. We are looking forward to having you in Birmingham next week.

David Bromberg: I’m looking forward to it. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to Birmingham.

Birmingham Stages: With your large catalog of music, how do you comprise your set lists these days?

DB: Well, I’ve never in my life had a set list. Before we go onstage, I decide what I want to start with and then the tunes just come to me as we go along. Our band has a repertoire of what is getting close to 100 tunes now and we go in any direction we feel like. The band appreciates it – they never know what’s going to happen and every night is different.

Birmingham Stages: Of all the classic blues songs available to you, how did you select the ones that made it onto The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues?

DB: Some of them came from what seems to work the best when we play it live and some of it is stuff that we just wanted to put together. For example, I wanted to do a Howlin’ Wolf tune but all of my favorite ones had been done to death. So, we took an old country tune and made up a lick that sounded like one that Wolf would’ve played and made a Wolf tune out of it.

Birmingham Stages: When you cover classic blues songs, is there a delicate balance between placing your own stamp on the material while staying respectful to the original versions?

DB: There’s usually something about a tune that attracts me, that I really like, so I try to get that in my performance. Truthfully, I can’t do anything but me.

Birmingham Stages: How did you and the album’s producer, Larry Campbell, first cross paths?

DB: I knew Larry from way, way back. When I was doing some production work in New York City, I got Larry to play on the recording so I was producing him. I started doing some of Levon’s [Helm] Midnight Rambles and Larry was the one who was pretty much responsible for anything at the Midnight Ramble. I did a CD called Use Me where I called up a number of people and asked each of them to write a song and then produce me doing it. I had stuff with John Hiatt, Los Lobos, Keb Mo’, Dr. John – there were a lot of people. Levon was one of the first people that I tried to reach, but the hardest thing about doing the CD was getting times when these people were free and when I was free. The time that Levon and I had set aside to do the recording turned out to be when he was post-operative recovering from an operation on his vocal cords, so he couldn’t talk, let alone sing. So Larry produced the sessions and he did such a wonderful job that I asked him if he wanted to produce a blues album with me and he said, “No.” He wanted to do an album like my old albums with everything but the kitchen sink and maybe even the kitchen sink. I didn’t even know he’d listened to those but we did one like that called Only Slightly Mad and then we did the blues album.

Birmingham Stages: You and Larry seem to be kindred spirits in that you’ve both contributed to numerous projects and neither of you are defined by any one genre.

DB: We kind of went to the same school in different years. Back in the day, I was first-call guitar player on a lot of records – I was on over 150 records. Larry is that on steroids. You name somebody really famous, they’ve hired Larry. He’s a fantastic musician and the more I work with him, the more I see his musicianship. He’s phenomenal.

Birmingham Stages: You went through a long spell in your career without releasing any new albums. Why did that happen?

DB: I stopped performing altogether for 22 years. I was burnt-out and I was too stupid to realize it was only burnout. When I wasn’t on the road, I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t practicing and I wasn’t jamming. I just figured that I had to find another way to live my life that I could enjoy, so I did that. I went to violin-making school and became a violin expert. Now I’m doing that as well as playing.

Birmingham Stages: Do you ever feel overlooked or underappreciated given your enormous body of work as a solo artist and sideman?

DB: The truth is I stepped away for 22 years. That I have any following at all is phenomenal – it’s really amazing to me. There’s something called the Americana Music Association. Back when I was performing, that word didn’t exist. I was Mr. Miscellaneous – nobody knew what the hell to do with me. Nowadays, they have this thing called Americana but the people who run that organization are all young and they’ve never heard of me. I understand why – I disappeared for 22 years. I’m on the other side of this and I’m amazed and delighted that there are so many people who still want to hear me play – that’s the best.

The David Bromberg Quintet will perform at WorkPlay on Monday, May 21. Advance tickets to the 8 p.m. show are $30 and can be purchased at www.workplay.com.