Multi-instrumental wizard David Bromberg isn’t indulging in drug humor when he says that his most important memories of Berkeley “are the ones I don’t have.”
It’s true that he was a ubiquitous presence in the late 1960s, a studio legend who collaborated with the likes of Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, George Harrison, and Jerry Jeff Walker before he even started releasing his own classic albums for Columbia in 1971. But the Berkeley memories he lost came not via acid dropped but a road not taken.
Relocating from the East Coast to the Bay Area in the spring of 1977, he settled in Marin “when I should have moved to Berkeley,” says Bromberg, 68, who performs with his band at Freight & Salvage on Sunday. “There were and are so many good musicians there, and one guy I learned more from than anybody was Jody Stecher. He was the biggest influence on my playing. But I was locked up in the studio and didn’t get out and around a lot.”
Fortunately one of the studios he frequented was Fantasy, the Berkeley label that released acclaimed albums like 1976’s How Late’ll Ya Play ‘Til? and 1977’s Reckless Abandon. “We used to drive over from Marin and eat Everett & Jones BBQ every chance we got,” Bromberg says.
Before he dropped out of the music scene in 1980, Bromberg played dozens of gigs around the region, including many in Berkeley. He doesn’t recall his first time performing here, but his late 1970s debut at Freight & Salvage left quite an impression.
Fascinated by violin building and looking for a respite from the rigors of the road, he had started working in Bob Scoville’s Corte Madera violin shop, where he “put a chisel through my hand, right by the thumb and I couldn’t play for a month,” Bromberg recalls. “The bandages came off and I was finally allowed to play the day of the Freight gig. I went back stage and played slow and loud scales and increasingly faster arpeggios, and I played real well that night.”
Following his passion for instrument building, he moved to Chicago to study at Kenneth Warren & Son School of Violin Making and eventually settled with his wife, bassist Nancy Josephson, in Wilmington, Del., where they run David Bromberg Fine Violins and he is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s finest appraisers of American-made violins.
After years of not playing any music in public, he slowly started to reemerge, starting with local acoustic and electric blues jams near his home. In 2007, he released his first new studio album in 17 years, Try Me One More Time (Appleseed Recordings), which earned a Grammy Award nomination for best traditional folk album. In 2011, he released Use Me, an ambitious project for which he solicited material from fellow heavyweights, including John Hiatt, Levon Helm, Keb’ Mo’, Los Lobos and Dr. John. He didn’t just hit them up for songs he asked them to produce the track too. “I have a pretty diverse musical background, so there was always an intersection, and they always knew where it was,” Bromberg says.
His latest album, 2013’s Only Slightly Mad, showcases his working band focusing on tunes he’s been playing with them in recent years. Working from Bromberg’s personal palette of blues, folk, bluegrass, and gospel, the combo is built upon his three-decade musical collaboration with bassist Robert “Butch” Amoit. “He knows almost every tune I do,” Bromberg says. “I don’t plan my sets, and I love it when I can think of some tune that he doesn’t know.”
On stage and on the phone Bromberg comes across as genuinely warm with a playful streak of mischief. He doesn’t mind sharing the spotlight with prodigious sidemen like Mark Cosgrove on guitar and mandolin, Nate Grower on fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, and drummer Josh Kanusky (everyone contributes vocals).
“Mark Cosgrove is off-the-charts guitarist,” Bromberg says, serious praise from a widely revered player. “I made him learn to play mandolin and he’s very good. He’s a brilliant lead guitarist, but what’s really priceless is his rhythm guitar playing, which brings something to the band that we haven’t had before. Nate is phenomenal fiddler who doesn’t realize how good he is, a modest, warm intelligent kid of 27. He plays mandolin and guitar on a tune or two. And I picked up the drummer Josh Kanusky from my wife’s band, the Angel Band.”
These days Bromberg no longer courts burnout. He stays on the road just long enough to miss his violins. And he works in his violin shop until he gets antsy to play some gigs. With so many musical compatriots in the Bay Area, he always looks forward to coming back, though he doesn’t relish his last performance at the Freight
“I was so sick I could barely sing, and I croaked my way through the set,” he says. “I changed the keys of all the songs to make them lower. I had no voice, none, but we made our way through it. There are excuses in this business. I’m glad to be coming back and I’ll be able to sing.”
Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. He lives in West Berkeley.
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