september 2011

David Bromberg: Then (left) and now. (Photo at left by Joe Deuel)

Like He Never Left

On Use Me, David Bromberg is back, fully and in full force, as in days of yore…

By David McGee

brombergUSE ME
David Bromberg
Appleseed Recordings

For those of a certain generation who remember the groundbreaking David Bromberg Big Band, a roots affair like no other in the ‘70s that a whole host of well-intentioned but less talented strivers now seek to emulate, closing your eyes and listening to the seamless, soulfully rendered selections on Use Me is to go back in time to, say, Bromberg’s joyous New Year’s Eve shows at Manhattan’s late, much-lamented Bottom Line club. For those latecomers who may have been introduced to Bromberg as the weary voiced country bluesman on his stirring (and Grammy nominated) 2007 comeback CD, Try Me One More Time, the bright-voiced, even youthful sounding singer on Use Me not only is really and truly David Bromberg, it’s a David Bromberg who sounds uncannily like his frizzy-maned ‘70s self while also playing some emotionally riveting blues guitar along the way and getting an injection of rockin’ pneumonia from the likes of Dr. John and Levon Helm. Verily, for a guy who put his recording career on ice for 17 years prior to releasing Try Me One More Time, it’s like he never left.

As Bromberg and his big band were in the ‘70s so are Bromberg and his accomplished accomplices on Use Me—there is no roots music under the sun Bromberg cannot execute with soul, conviction and bone-deep understanding of the stories the songs tell. This isn’t about hitting all the right notes vocally, although Bromberg does, but rather about bringing the feeling full force and living in the moment for all it’s worth. The performances on Use Me are so satisfying they nearly escape the reviewer’s tools for apt descriptions. Blues of various sorts, country, a taste of bluegrass, Spanish-inflected balladry, old-time jug band—it’s all here in a seamless sequence working its way to a powerhouse conclusion on a six-and-a-half-minute version of Bill Withers’s “Use Me,” a closing salvo absent bravura fireworks in favor of a subdued, sensitive come-on in deep blue that takes the song to an entirely different level than the great Withers did in his scintillating uptempo treatment. In Bromberg’s hands “Use Me” is slinky and salacious, he drawling his plea to the woman he can’t quit no matter her insensitivity, and interjecting suggestive electric guitar flourishes as Anthony Bell burbles away seductively on keyboards while Jim Miades (bass) and Andy Kravitz (drums) keep the bottom rock steady. This being arguably the most familiar of the 11 songs here, Bromberg does what he always does with these types of covers—turns it inside out, finds something there that had been hidden all along, and runs with it, never losing the essence of the original but managing to make his version stand proud alongside its source. Those of a certain generation—Bromberg’s—will also have fond memories of one of Brook Benton’s most sumptuous cautionary ballads, “It’s Just a Matter of Time,” which has also been a country chart topper for both Sonny James and Randy Travis and a top 10 country single for Glen Campbell, in addition to being a #1 R&B and #3 pop hit for Benton himself in 1959. Backing his tender, quavering vocal and sturdy acoustic guitar strumming and bluesy picking Bromberg has assembled a rather awesome, velvety pop background chorus comprised of his wife Nancy Josephson (otherwise known as one of the principals of Angel Band), Laurie Lewis and Linda Ronstadt to lay on the soothing support necessary to heighten the lyrics’ sense of the inevitable in keeping with Benton’s emphasis on accentuating the positive absent any tint of celebratory vindication. In this instance the gals do what the strings did in the Benton version, as Bromberg’s acoustic guitar and Todd Sickafoose’s upright bass take the song deeper into blues territory, darker but still uplifting in the end.

David Bromberg: Closing your eyes and listening to the seamless, soulfully rendered selections on Use Me is to go back in time… (Photo: Judy Sirota Rosenthal)

The only Bromberg original on the album kicks off the proceedings and will bring back fond memories to those fans who remember the Bromberg big band days. “Tongue,” with Levon Helm kickin’ it on drums and both Bromberg and Larry Campbell on electric guitars, is a delightful, energetic R&B romp complete with a robust, blaring horn section; some rich B3 work courtesy Brian Mitchell; and a hilarious, growling vocal from Bromberg that underscores the lyrics’ comical take on romance (“you better take your tongue outta my mouth/‘cause I’m kissin’ you goodbye!” he wails at the end). In an interesting contrast, “Ride On Out A Ways,” the next song, is a 180-degree turn from “Tongue.” This John Hiatt number (with Hiatt pitching in on electric guitar and organist Kevin McKendree adding an affecting, lonely hum underpinning the track) is a touching R&B ballad about two lovers awaiting their moment to break free from their existential stasis. One of the album’s standouts, from all perspectives, comes in Tim O’Brien’s bluegrass-tinged ballad, “Blue Is Fallin’,” a powerful tale of a man’s self-directed proclivity towards misfortune (“I’ll be makin’ jokes/I’ll be ridin’ high/when something turns a key/it all goes awry/and starts pushin’ me down/down to my knees/I always hate it when I act this way/I try to stop it from comin’/but it comes anyway/it’s nothin’ about you/it’s all about me”…) that Bromberg animates with a gripping vocal over a mordant, backwoods atmosphere fashioned by a redoubtable band numbering O’Brien himself on mandolin and backing vocals, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Dennis Crouch on bass, Kenny Malone on drums and Nancy Josephson again on backing vocals.

David Bromberg, ‘Dark Hollow,’ at MerleFest, April 25,2009

On the lighter side, the good Dr., Mac Rebennack shows up on piano and as a songwriter with his funky “You Don’t Wanna Make Me Mad,” a bumping comic tale Bromberg sells with a mock-serious vocal to which he adds some pungent, moaning slide guitar work over Mac’s tasty, restrained keyboard support. With Vince Gill on mandolin, electric guitar and vocals, Bromberg gets into strutting mode on a joyous Gill-Guy Clark countrified high-stepper, “Lookout Mountain Girl,” all light-hearted, upbeat testifying punctuated by striking solos courtesy Gill (on both his instruments) and Jack Pearson (electric guitar), plus a taste of honky tonk piano thanks to Pete Wasner. One of the real beauties here finds the entirety of Los Lobos joining Bromberg on David Hidalgo and Louie Perez’s “The Long Goodbye,” a moving, atmospheric study of predictable partings—from family, friends and lovers—that “seem never to stop.” Beautiful as it is, the song is a dirge that moves as relentlessly forward to its tear-stained end as do the lives it chronicles, with Hidalgo’s accordion standing out in the way its anxious cry complements the despair articulated in the lyrics and voiced in Bromberg’s emotional reading. According to Bromberg’s liner notes, “The Long Goodbye” was the first song recorded for this project. Upon listening to the completed track, he must have known he was onto something special. Thus the truth attested to by the gripping performances that ensued and now comprise the whole of Use Me, the finest album in David Bromberg’s long and distinguished career.

David Bromberg’s Use Me is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024