(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

CD review - David Bromberg, Use Me (2011)

Friends help a classic player show his range

David Bromberg is one of America's greatest secret guitarists. While he hasn't achieved public superstardom, Bromberg is well known among blues/bluegrass aficionados and his fellow musicians. Comfortable on guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and steel guitar, he has been a prolific session player for a wide variety of players since the '60s. Musically, he's most rooted in the blues and American folk traditions, but these never box him in.

I've been a huge fan ever since I discovered his first album (David Bromberg) which included a collaboration with George Harrison (The Holdup). His playing and vocal phrasing enthralled me and he became one of my big influences on both guitar and singing. Use Me is Bromberg's latest album and it shows both how far and how short a distance he's come over the last four decades.

It's been a short trip, because his roots as a session side man are in full display and, like those recording sessions, the song always comes first for Bromberg. His playing has always been top notch and that continues on Use Me. At the same time, he's matured like a fine wine over the years, as he's developed the voice to rise above his well-spring genres. This makes him better at bridging the gap between traditional folk, blues, and country.

Beyond naming the album after the Bill Withers tune he covers, the conceit behind Use Me is that Bromberg partnered with a number of his friends, asking them to "use him". Each artist flavored a track within their own aesthetic, inviting Bromberg to step in and add his seasoning. The line up of famous performers is impressive: Levon Helm (the Band), John Hiatt, bluegrass master Tim O'Brien, Dr. John, Keb' Mo', Los Lobos, Widespread Panic, Linda Ronstadt, Vince Gill, and producers the Butcher Brothers (Phil and Joe Nicolo).

The range of styles from blues to funk to traditional folk give the album an eclectic feel, but together they form a mosaic of David Bromberg's work. Whether it's the Mexican folk waltz of The Long Goodbye or the funky groove of Old Neighborhood, each song offers a perspective on his playing. Old Neighborhood was particularly interesting as Bromberg trades licks with Jimmy Herring and Widespread Panic. Hearing him fit into the interplay of a jam band was a joy.

Bromberg's playing is always tasteful above all else. The bluesy country of Ride Out a Ways, with John Hiatt, shows off a perfect touch. Hiatt's playing is solid and hearing the guitar float above the blanket of organ creates a churchy moment. Bromberg's voice is weary but strong. I love his phrasing, as he can loosen up and drag out the lyrics, then slip in a tight package of words a couple of lines later. Elvis Costello has some similar tricks, but he never makes it sound as effortless as Bromberg.

Despite its moody funk, Dr. John's track, You Don't Wanna Make Me Mad has a loose feel. It's a great NOLA-inspired groove. The laid back bass and syncopated percussion drive the song with Bromberg's wicked slide guitar and Dr. John's piano filling out the sound. Bromberg's vocals are casual and he tosses off some great asides: "Everybody needs a little bit of space every now and then. And this is my now and this is my then." It's interesting to compare how Dr. John might have sung this to Bromberg's performance. Bromberg exaggerates the attitude, giving it a touch of humor.

By contrast, the track with Keb' Mo', Digging in the Deep Blue Sea, is dark and heavy. The looming bass and drums build a down and dirty framework, while the keyboards and guitar fill out the structure. Spooky keyboard swells flash from side to side, fine-tuning the tension. The reflective solo is less a centerpiece than an interlude in the song. The lyrics seem inspired by the BP oil spill, but look to the bigger picture of oil dependency. Never getting strident, the conflict is clear:
What are we gonna do about all the mess we made?
You can't run an 18-wheeler, child, on lemonade
David Bromberg is a timeless artist. Use Me's mix of older artists like Helm and Ronstadt with younger players like Keb' Mo' and Widespread Panic demonstrates the reach of Bromberg's career. Whether you're familiar with him or not, Use Me is a worthwhile new step in Bromberg's path.

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