David Bromberg Band,
Only Slightly Mad
(Appleseed, 2013)

David Bromberg reports that his original plan for this album was "all Chicago-style blues." His producer, the well-regarded, roots-informed Larry Campbell, dissuaded him, encouraging him instead to return to the eclectic style of the albums he was doing before his 17-year hiatus from recording in 1990. Only Slightly Mad is the result, the third CD of newly cut material he's released on the folk label Appleseed since Try Me One More Time, consisting of mostly traditional songs done solo (see my review here on 7 April 2007).

Mad showcases everything likable about Bromberg's approach: strong musicality (hardly a surprise), a pleasing variety of rooted songs and (not least) his endearing sense of humor. Campbell's production is full but not overwhelming. Possessed of a limited range, Bromberg is not a natural singer, but he does as well as anyone could under the circumstances even if on occasion he seems to be stretching it precariously.

Nobody will ever improve on the Stanley Brothers's classic "The Fields Have Turned Brown," close to as perfectly sad a song as exists, but Bromberg turns in a surprisingly moving, creative arrangement in which he wisely eschews the standard bluegrass setting. The traditional gospel "Nobody's Fault But Mine" gets the full electric treatment with rich blues overtones, perhaps a hint of what might have been had Bromberg and band gone full Chicago-style. An acoustic medley opens with Bromberg's unaccompanied original "The Strongest Man Alive" ("an old English drinking song that I wrote") and links it with a couple of instrumentals, Kelly Lancaster's "Maydelle's Reel" and tradition's "Jenny's Chickens," to very pleasing effect. A comparable set of two old-time numbers linked with a Bill Monroe tune reminds listeners again of Bromberg's out-sized flat-picking talents.

Bromberg accompanied Tom Rush on the latter's original 1970 recording of David Wiffen's "Drivin' Wheel" -- written around an image from a Blind Willie McTell blues -- and Bromberg presents his own version here. It's a great tune and a decent accounting of it, though Rush is so manifestly superior a vocalist that one can either wonder at Bromberg's choice or marvel at his courage. Likewise, the country "Last Date," first done by Conway Twitty, who was a memorably straight-to-the-heart singer. So were Alberta Hunter, Louis Armstrong and Dave Van Ronk, among those who previously recorded "Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning." Even so, Bromberg's readings, which suffer only by comparison, hold their own on the strength of their uniformly stellar instrumental arrangements.

His late-career Appleseed recordings match up to the best of his earlier work. Only Slightly Mad is congenial company throughout. Experience and professionalism have a lot to do with that, of course, but so do Bromberg's easy-going personality and his love of a good joke.

music review by
Jerome Clark

4 January 2014

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