David Bromberg Band,
The Blues, the Whole Blues & Nothing But the Blues
(Red House, 2016)

On his brand-new album veteran folk musician David Bromberg delivers on the title's promise, namely a whole lot of ... well, you know. In the liner notes Bromberg relates that he and his bandmates were in the studio wrapping things up under the title The Blues, the Whole Blues & Nothing But the Blues when they learned that Gary Nicholson and Russell Smith had already written a song by that name. So they went back to cut one more number, the just-mentioned, expanding the content to a baker's dozen.

A multi-instrumentalist and string wizard who's been around since the Greenwich Village folk days, Bromberg has picked with just about everybody. I first saw him on stage with Jerry Jeff Walker (who hadn't yet moved to Texas), and he's since joined forces with Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Rush, to name but a handful; the list goes on. He's also been recording on his own for decades. After taking some years off to build violins and move himself to Wilmington, Delaware, he returned to recording with the wryly titled, after a country-blues lyric, Try Me One More Time (reviewed here on 7 April 2007). After a handful of releases with Appleseed, Bromberg and associates have landed at the St. Paul-based Red House.

Among the CD's most inspired moments is a recreation of the folksong "900 Miles" in a chugging arrangement that envisions what it would have sounded like if Howlin' Wolf had cut it. Not actually a blues, "900 Miles" is well known in this and other variants (e.g., "Reuben's Train," "Train 45," "500 Miles"), its origins murky but rooted in the Reconstruction-era South. What's missing, of course is Wolf's menacing, gravel-road-at-midnight vocal, which would have made the song a lot more scary, but Bromberg knows better than to try to imitate it. If not a natural singer, he learned long ago to deliver persuasively within his limitations, which is more than can be said at times of, say, a certain recent Nobel Prize winner.

Besides his instrumental skill, exceptional taste in material, and immersion in roots styles, Bromberg boasts a charming sense of humor. People who don't listen to it much think blues is gloomy, but it is just as often very funny. Bromberg has great fun with the paper-thin sexual metaphor that frames "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon," associated with Bessie Smith (though many of us first heard it on a Dave Van Ronk album). There's also "How Come My Dog Don't Bark When You Come 'Round?" whose plot and punchline need no further explication.

Most of the album is electric blues, sometimes fattened by a horn arrangement put together by producer Larry Campbell. It's pretty hard to improve on "Walkin' Blues" (from Robert Johnson) and "Eyesight to the Blind" (Sonny Boy Williamson II), both genre classics, but they're decent enough in these hands if you accept the treatments as what they are: capable covers by talented modern musicians reimagining songs they like, not reaching for anything more profound. In any case, they aren't copies. "Walkin' Blues," the opening cut, is fiercely plugged-in almost in the fashion of a Junior Kimbrough, and "Eyesight" nicely adds Nate Grower's swing fiddle to the mix. Bromberg's occasional originals blend in organically without drawing any special attention to themselves.

Still, Bromberg is at his most impressive, at least to my hearing, in the acoustic material, particularly in a reading of "Delia," among the most sung of all American murder ballads. It's based on a senseless, almost inexplicable crime committed in Savannah, Georgia, on Christmas Eve 1900. Both killer and victim were teenagers. Bromberg uses his voice to unexpectedly compelling effect, backed simply by his acoustic guitar. One wonders why ballads documenting the most ugly acts are set to the most beautiful melodies. Though again not exactly a blues, it's likely to be the number that moves listeners most and lingers longest in memory.

music review by
Jerome Clark

12 November 2016

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