THE News Journal - "USE ME"

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David Bromberg, surrounded by violins and some of his guitars, strums a 1954 Fender Esquire in his living room in Wilmington. / THE NEWS JOURNAL/FRED COMEGYS

A star among the stars

On new album, Wilmington's Bromberg gets help from music world's brightest

When David Bromberg first settled into his new home perched above Wilmington's Market Street in 2002, he was near the end of a nearly 20-year dry spell in which he hadn't recorded new music and barely performed concerts for his devoted fans.

As he and downtown Wilmington grew together, the folk/blues musician began performing with local strummers at informal jam sessions.

It set off a creative spark. In 2007, he released his first album in 17 years, snagged a Grammy Award nomination and headed back out on the road for what has been a triumphant comeback.

For a guy who avoided recording studios for so long after breaking through in the 1970s as a sideman to everyone from Bob Dylan to George Harrison, Bromberg's newest album sure found him in plenty of them.

"Use Me," the second album of his Delaware years set to be released Tuesday, finds the American roots virtuoso performing in nine studios with nine national acts, recorded over the past 21/2 years.

As the title hints, Bromberg rounded up a stable of guests -- from Levon Helm and Dr. John to Widespread Panic and Los Lobos -- and asked them to write a song for him, as well as produce and perform the track on the album.

The all-star supporting cast has 43 Grammy Awards between them -- not a bad batch of guest musicians for a guy who had basically been out of the music business just five years ago.

Sitting in his home office with a vault of beloved American violins to his right, Bromberg glows when he talks about his recording trips and the response he got from some of music's best-known names, some of whom he had never met.

"I never take anything for granted," he said from behind his salt-and-pepper beard, dressed in the suit he usually wears while working in his violin shop that sits under his home. "One of my favorite quotes is from Will Rogers: 'If you have to tell somebody who you are, you ain't.' I was humbled."

Injecting new life
Over their nine years in Wilmington, Bromberg and his artist/musician wife, Nancy Josephson, have injected new life into the city's music and art scenes, first participating in lively acoustic jams at the old 4W5 Cafe surrounded by a dark, silent downtown, years before the Queen Theatre lit up the area at night.

Bromberg performed without a fee for the city's First Night celebrations on New Year's Eve and has been a mentor for some young area musicians, like Johnny "Duke" Lippincott, who led Johnny Duke & the Aces in Wilmington before moving to Nashville. Duke is now a guitarist on tour with Little Big Town, and Bromberg calls him "the best guitar player I've ever played with."

Last year, he headed up Bromberg's Big Noise in the Neighborhood music festival, which drew 3,000 to Wilmington as a benefit for the Queen. And when the Queen opened in April, Bromberg was in the front row before performing in front of VIPs.

He showed off his famous sense of humor that morning. Instead of singing something uplifting or schmaltzy, Bromberg went with his 1975 song, "I Like to Sleep Late in the Morning."

Explaining the song choice, Bromberg got the morning's biggest laugh when he deadpanned, "Right now I'm on tour and when I'm on tour, I don't finish throwing up until 3 p.m., so this is a little hard for me."

Even though Bromberg has done a lot in Wilmington, it was his decision to refurbish a dilapidated 19th-century building, with the help of the city, and move his home and business into the heart of downtown that still sticks with Tina Betz, Wilmington's cultural affairs director.

"They were really pioneers. No one was doing what they did and now we have more people moving into residences downtown," she said. "They have far exceeded expectations. And, frankly, my concern wasn't that they would meet our expectations. With them coming from Chicago, I was concerned we wouldn't meet their expectations. Maybe they would come and find that it wasn't what they hoped it would be. So with them here after nine years, it really feels good."

Bromberg has made his mark on downtown Wilmington, sometimes quite literally. On the same block where he lives is a Delaware State University building, which features a massive black-and-white wraparound billboard celebrating musicians with Wilmington connections. Bromberg's smiling face is alongside legends like trumpeter Clifford Brown and former Wilmington resident Bob Marley.

Unlike the two decades when Bromberg mostly went dark musically, he regularly tours these days. He has a steady schedule of weekend shows lined up in support of the new album, including at the famed Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., on Saturday and the vaunted Philadelphia Folk Festival on Aug. 20. Bromberg's next Wilmington performance will be at The Grand on May 5.

At this point in his career, he can pick and choose gigs, playing small theaters each weekend across the country before getting back to his busy Market Street violin shop during the week. It's a perfect schedule, unlike the old days.

"I was burnt out. I was on the road at one point for two years without being home for two weeks. I was too dumb to realize it was burnout. I thought I wasn't a musician," said Bromberg, 65, who recently shed his glasses thanks to corrective eye surgery. "I stopped playing and now that I've started again, I'm never going to let myself get in that position again.

"I only do things I'm going to enjoy. I don't ever want to be walking out of a club at 3 a.m. looking for a cab. Enough."

There will be plenty of focus on the surprisingly cohesive 11-track album with plenty of gems, whether it's the funky, rebellious song from Dr. John, "You Don't Wanna Make Me Mad," or the Bromberg-penned "Tongue," one of two he cut with Helm at the Band legend's home studio.

Unlike his Grammy-nominated "Try Me One More Time," recorded at the baby grand in Wilmington, Bromberg is on electric guitar for almost all of the disc.

Even if you haven't heard the live release of Bromberg performing "Tongue" at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in 2007, you might let out a roar of your own just like the crowd did that day in Tennessee when Bromberg got to the song's final line, a perfect kiss-off: "One more thing. You best get your tongue out of my mouth because I'm kissing you goodbye."

'A total crapshoot'
Wilmington multi-instrumentalist and producer Marc Moss, who regularly performs with Josephson as a member of Angel Band, recorded and mixed nearly every "Use Me" session, jumping on a plane with Bromberg whenever they got the call that one of the guests had signed on.

He says he was practicing with Angel Band in Bromberg's home in 2008 when Bromberg came up to him with a sheet of paper. On it were all the names of the guest musicians he wanted to try to snag for the album, nearly all of whom ended up agreeing, including Vince Gill, John Hiatt, Keb' Mo', Linda Ronstadt and Tim O'Brien.

Moss remembers looking at the list and thinking, "Is this really going to happen?"

Soon, Bromberg's management was reaching out to the musicians and getting the thumbs-up.

"In no time at all, we had things cookin'," says Moss, who suddenly found himself in the home studios of artists like Helm in Woodstock, N.Y., and Gill in Nashville, Tenn.

At Gill's home, Moss and the crew were ready to leave after they cut the track. Instead, Gill invited them to stay for some tacos and they all jammed together among Gill's impressive guitar collection.

"I was pinching myself the whole time," said Moss, whom Bromberg calls "a big-time talent in a small town."

But it wasn't all fun and games. Bromberg was at the mercy of his guests since they were giving him a song, producing it and performing on it. If the song didn't work, there were a few times when Bromberg asked for another song and got one -- right there in the studio on the fly.

"It was a total crapshoot," Moss says. "I was amazed when I finally got to sit down, put the headphones on and listened to how great it held together."

Bromberg's knack for whip-smart (and usually funny, lines) continues on "Use Me," particularly at the end of his collaboration with another musical wordsmith, Dr. John.

"Everybody needs a little bit of space now and then," Bromberg sings, "and this is my now and this is my then."

Worth the price
While making an album is expensive, traveling across country added to the price tag. Luckily, the head of Bromberg's label, the small West Chester, Pa.-based Appleseed Recordings, is Jim Musselman, a lifelong fan.

Still, as Moss puts it, "they were very nervous about the whole thing. You could almost buy a house with what this album cost to make."

Musselman said he was on board with Bromberg early on with his vision of traveling and playing with his guest artists live in studio, even though the magic of computers could have patched two recording sessions together.

"It's a celebration of David and American music in many ways," Musselman said. "We wanted to do this in a first-class way. David deserves that."

The upside of the financial commitment to the album is paying off already. A few reviews have surfaced, and they are overwhelmingly positive. A review in Rolling Stone is scheduled for this week's issue and, just like with his comeback, there is some Grammy buzz for the album.

And, of course, there are Bromberg's fans -- fans who still record and trade his live performances, travel from city to city to see him and who are thankful for Bromberg's return to the music world after focusing solely on his violin sales and repair business.

"I got more letters from David's fans than any other artist," Musselman says. "They would write, 'I kept looking every year for a new album and always walked out in disappointment.' "

Wilmington's Bill Taylor, head of the Light Up the Queen Foundation and former talent buyer at Tipitina's in New Orleans, listened to an advance copy of "Use Me" last week and had a quick reaction: "I think this has Grammy written all over it."

"The caliber of musicians that he has on there is a testament to David. Those are not B-listers," Taylor adds. "And what a great thing for Wilmington, too. He's putting us on the map in more ways than one."


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