october 2008

brombergLIVE NEW YORK CITY 1982
David Bromberg Quartet
Appleseed Records

No mere relic of an earlier time by a younger artist at his peak, the David Bromberg Quartet's Live New York City 1982 previously available only years ago in a limited edition, has been remastered to a brilliant, pristine clarity by Marc Moss, the better to serve an evening of instrumental virtuosity alternately incendiary and sensitive, and soulful vocal meditations in blues and country. (The location is never identified, either in Bromberg's liner notes or from the stage, although Bromberg mentions at one point the historic nature of the venue, citing Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs as artists he had seen there; the big room sound rules out the Bottom Line or any other Village club, but would seem to rule in, say, Town Hall.) Apart from multi-instrumentalist Bromberg (guitar, fiddle, mandolin), the lineup, three fourths of which remains intact today, includes Jeff Wisor on fiddle, mandolin and vocals; Butch Amiot on bass and vocals; and Gene Johnson, now with Diamond Reo, on mandolin, fiddle and vocals.

It was Bromberg's habit to kick off his sets with a barnburning bluegrass number, and so it is that this night commenced with the group leader's solo red-hot guitar pickin', ahead of the rest of hs mates entering at full sprint on "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," a 10:21 version that incorporates a blistering fiddle medley of "Red Apple Rag,' "Turkey In the Straw" and "Dixie Hoedown" in addition to an absolutely astonishing speed-picked mandolin run by Johnson, as Wisor weaves frantic circles around the medley with his sharp, quick bowing, and Amiot finds some notes near the top of the bass neck that add lively colors to the rhythmic thrust. There would be more, many more, of these flawless, breathtaking displays, so fleet and so immaculately executed as to approach the mysterious. But this was vintage Bromberg, captured at a moment when the music couldn't help but surge out of him in a restless rush as if to suggest time was short and there were important matters afoot demanding a hearing. At this stage of his career he had responded to professional burnout by dropping his demanding schedule of solo and session work, moving to Chicago and studying the luthier's art-in fact, in this set he plays what he claims is the first violin he had completed (the day before this concert, in fact) during his apprenticeship. So perhaps there was an unspoken urgency to the proceedings, because it would be another 20 years before he re-emerged on record (with 2002's powerful solo acoustic blues album, Try Me One More Time), during which interlude he rarely played in public either.

On this occasion the quartet did its typical thing of ranging wide across the traditional music landscape, with a hard-charging version of the Tommy Duncan-penned Bob Wills classic, "Stay All Night," another occasion for Wisor to step into the spotlight with a furious fiddle solo and Amiot to bolster the attack with his exuberant walking bass; a breezy version of Furry Lewis's near-surreal account of battles with bedbugs and other critters inhabiting his hotel room in the frisky country blues of "The Creeper's Blues"; a somber, atmospheric treatment of Leroy Carr's melancholic reflection on the measure of his days, "Midnight Hour Blues," with Bromberg singing in a sweet, low voice and accompanying himself with spare, searching fingerpicked guitar shadings; a "two-handkerchief tune," as Bromberg describes the straight-ahead country weeper "On Our Last Date," a vocal version of Floyd Cramer's classic country instrumental, "Last Date," with Bromberg using the lyrics penned by Conway Twitty for his recording rather than those penned by Boudleaux Bryant and Skeeter Davis for the latter's 1960 treatment, with the band rising in harmony on the verses and sounding for all the world like the Sons of the Pioneers; and a lovely, swaying treatment of David Massengill's wrenching murder ballad, "Fairfax County," with Bromberg articulating the tale with heart-tugging tenderness, really getting inside the song and bringing the narrator, an aging woman, to vivid life as she looks back in old age to when a thoughtless moment in her youth cast a pall over the rest of her days. There's a "spooky waltz," as Bromberg identifies it, in the form of the crying, fiddle-drenched "Ookpik Waltz"; Dylan's shambling, old-timey singalong, "Wallflower"; and a ferocious take on his own merciless appraisal of the ceaseless insults endured by wandering troubadours ("another piece of cardboard pie") in the enduring "New Lee Highway Blues." Finally, the band goes out as it came in, trading on elevated emotions in a high-flying, richly textured deconstruction of the gospel standard, "Working On a Building," but with even more ferocity that that which greeted the audience about an hour earlier. The only weakness in Bromberg's game at this juncture was his singing and his occasional unfortunate tendency to affect black dialect, but that's a non-starter: he is so engaged with these songs that you can't help but be moved by his commitment to the message—you believe him, and that's about as fine a compliment as you can hand a vocalist. (And maybe as an aside it should be pointed out that his singing on Try Me One More Time is wondrous in all respects-age certainly has been his ally.) Live New York City 1982 captures a blessed night of music making by four gifted, deeply soulful musicians. Twenty-six years after the fact, the power of these performances has become one with many of the well-worn songs in the band's repertoire—that is to say, as good as ever, and getting better all the time.—David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024