Much has been made of the story of how David Bromberg used to take guitar lessons from legendary blind bluesman the Rev. Gary Davis.
“I learned an awful lot from the reverend,” Bromberg says, retelling the tale of how he started out paying Davis $5 per lesson initially, later to get his lessons free in exchange for serving as Davis’ guide, driving him to gigs and to church to preach.
What is less shared about that legend is that it was not just Davis’ musical instruction that proved to be a huge influence on Bromberg’s style.
“I really enjoyed the church at that time with Rev. Gary. I decided to check out other churches and I discovered something about guitar playing from those other churches where nobody even touched a guitar,” says Bromberg, sharing the story by cell phone en route to a pair of dates in Michigan over the weekend.
“It occurred to me after listening to B.B. King that his choice of notes was his own, but his phrasing was a preacher’s. If you listen to B.B. and have that in mind, you’ll hear him preaching.”
Bromberg will bring his own style of religion to the pulpit Saturday night at Key Brewing in Dundalk, Md., near Baltimore, to headline a two-day revival meeting known as the Charm City Fall Throwdown.
The 16-band lineup features 15 bluegrass bands, including Friday night headliner Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, Mile Twelve, Chatham, County Line, the Jakobs Ferry Stragglers, Colebrook Road, and the High and Wides.
Bromberg will be appearing with his five-piece band, which includes drummer Josh Kanusky, along with Mark Cosgrove on guitar, Nate Grower on fiddle, and Suavek Zaniesienko on bass. Cossgrove and Grower also pick some mandolin at times, but in case the drums didn’t clue you in — this is not a bluegrass band.
To be sure, they will play some bluegrass. They will a little blues, too, and some rock and roll, maybe a little Dixieland jazz. In sticking with the religion theme for a second, you might say Bromberg’s music is sort of like a Universal Unitarian style of Americana, with a little something for everyone, all served up with Bromberg’s distinctive style.
Asked to name some artists who gave influenced his music, he launches into a diverse list that includes Flatt and Scruggs, jazz guitarist Grant Green, The Weavers, and Bob Dylan. A few minutes after the interview ends the phone rings and it is him, “I was thinking and I realized I forgot to mention some other influences,” he says. ticking off another half dozen or so, including Bo Diddley and Ike and Tina Turner.
“That’s the problem,” laments Bromberg, who has always been sort of a cult favorite despite a 50-plus year career that has seen him collaborate with enough big names to fill a wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Nobody will own me because I don’t play only one kind of music. Commercially speaking, that is a big mistake.”
The list of those he has played with and influenced is as long, and eclectic, as that list of his influences. His 1974 album Wanted Dead or Alive featured a song, “The Holdup,” he wrote with George Harrison after a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a mutual friend. On that recording he is backed by four members of the Grateful Dead, including Jerry Garcia, who he had gotten to know when they spent hours jamming together while riding out rainstorms in a tent at Woodstock.
In demand as a session musician and sideman, he played on more than 100 albums with artists like Bob Dylan, the Dead, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Carly Simon, The Eagles, Emmylou Harris, and John Hartford.
This will be a rare festival appearance by Bromberg, who will celebrate his 76th birthday with a few reunion shows of his “big band” in December and early next year. Those big band shows, with horns and backup singers, are also rare treats, as were any performances at all for many years when Bromberg took a self-imposed sabbatical of sorts to study violin making.
“I did take almost 18 years off and didn’t perform at all. I barely picked up the guitar for 18 years,” Bromberg says, explaining one reason he doesn’t play a lot of festivals. “(Festivals) are usually geared towards very young audiences and the people who want to see me, or who remember seeing me, are not that young.”
Don’t let Bromberg’s self-deprecating comments fool you though. Since returning to the road his schedule has seemed to get fuller each year. In 2019 Bromberg played 90 dates. He had played 17 the first two months of 2020 before everything came screeching to a halt.
Fall Throwdown promoter Phil Chorney, of Charm City Bluegrass, says he jumped at the chance to book Bromberg as the event’s headliner.
“I’ve know about him and his amazing blend of music since my UDel days. He is a legend who blends so many styles of music,” says Chorney. “David fit perfectly with the eclecticness of the fall vibe. Plus his fiddle player Nate is amazing and plays with the High and Wides. It just made sense.”
A seven-band Friday slate kicks off at 3 p.m. with Bilgewater Bluegrass and includes Jakobs Ferry Stragglers, Colebrook Road, Friday headliner Michael Cleveland, and a late-night set by Virginia jam band ONA.
Rock Creek Revival leads off Saturday’s festivities at noon. In addition to Bromberg, Saturday’s lineup includes Mile Twelve, the Hampden Bluegrass All-Star Band, the High and Wides, Seldom Said No, and the Dirty Grass Players. ONA will close things out with another late-night set.
Tickets, including two-day passes and on-site parking, are available at https://charmcity.missiontix.com/affiliate/website/event/charm-city-bluegrass-fall-throwdown-2