David Bromberg,
Try Me One More Time
(Appleseed, 2007)

David Bromberg, who improbably recorded as a folk musician for Columbia Records in the folk-unfriendly 1970s, ended his active performing career in 1980. He moved from New York to California to Chicago -- where (if memory serves) I saw him once or twice chatting at the bar of the long defunct and missed Holstein's folk club on Lincoln Avenue -- to learn how to construct classical violins. He eventually relocated to Wilmington, Delaware, where he lives still with his wife, artist and musician Nancy Josephson. Sometime between his last recording in 1990 and the present, as he told the Philadelphia Inquirer (Feb. 2, 2007), he produced an album for Bob Dylan, never released. "I overmixed it," he said. "I'm sure it will come out eventually. There's some very good stuff on it." Now, that's the sort of thing that makes a future worth keeping around.

Meantime, here is an occasion to celebrate: the release of a relaxed, lowkey album from Bromberg, just guitar and a bunch of discerningly picked traditional and might-as-well-be traditional songs and tunes, under the ruefully tongue-in-cheek title Try Me One More Time. "Try Me" is also the first cut, Bromberg's rolling, melody-intensive reworking of an at-least-century-old African-American songster favorite. One is immediately moved by the exquisite tone pouring out of Bromberg's instrument. One hears it as much as one hears the vocal and the narrative, and it sets up high expectations for what is to come next.

Though not a naturally gifted singer, Bromberg is a natural performer, and he uses his voice to remarkable effect -- except, perhaps, on "Big Road," which to my ear amounts to a baffling failure of the imagination. There surely can be no reason to stretch vocal chords in emulation of Tommy Johnson's borderline-deranged, rotgut-whiskey-fueled delivery. I wish instead that Bromberg had taken apart this seminal blues (once the subject of a thick book by folklorist David Evans) and rebuilt it, maybe even in non-blues structure. Oh, well, nobody's perfect, but just about everywhere else on this excellent recording, Bromberg comes close enough to silence all the would-be whiners.

Particular joy is to be found in the gloomy inhabitation of Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," so dead-on a folk-blues that one hesitates to point out that it is, after all, not really what it seems to be: the product of a genre in truth an endangered species in its native habitat when Dylan wrote it for Highway 61 Revisited (1965). Stylistically, it is all but indistinguishable from the other, older, more "authentic" pieces associated with the Rev. Gary Davis ("I Belong to the Band," "Trying to Get Home"), Blind Willie McTell ("Love Changing Blues"), Robert Johnson ("Kind Hearted Woman") and Elizabeth Cotten ("Shake Sugaree," as filtered through Fred Neil). I doubt that it was his intention, but even so, Bromberg may draw you into reflection that Dylan long ago ceased to be a folk archivist; maybe, rather, his most powerful songs have passed into the living folk tradition.

Besides blues and blues-like tunes (including a beautifully chilly "Levee Camp Moan"), Bromberg revives ballad chestnuts such as "When First Unto This Country," "Moonshiner" (unaccompanied), "East Virginia," and more. Probably, he's been singing and playing them most of his life. Even if you've known these songs most of your own life, I am certain that you will revel in the new life he gives them. He captures the odd subtext of "East Virginia" in a way that eludes many performers, communicating the impression that this strange, anonymous woman ("Her name and age I still don't know") is as likely to be an apparition or a dream as a lover of mere flesh and blood.

"It's a folk music record," Bromberg remarks matter-of-factly in the liner notes. "Just a guy doing tunes." Yup. I have listened to it again and again, and the pleasure only expands. I expect that once you've heard it, you will try Try Me One More Time more than one more time.

by Jerome Clark
7 April 2007

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