David Bromberg at the Birchmere

Ron Wray on November 29, 2021
David Bromberg at the Birchmere

It was icon on icon. To celebrate his 76th birthday, his 50th-year tour, and his band’s return after two years of pandemic blues, David Bromberg belted out his unique blend of blues, along with tender country ballads and his trademark humor on the stage of the famed Birchmere, in historic Alexandria, Virginia. He played to a full house of devotees, with the band honing its chops right up to its triumphant return to the stage on November 15.

For fans, it was an early Thanksgiving. The good feeling and anticipation in the crowd was palpable. Bromberg has been known to many all the way from his rise in the psychedelic and folksy sixties. Early fans of Bromberg included Bob Dylan, who included him on two of his most significant albums, and The Beatles, with George Harrison becoming a collaborator with Bromberg. Over the years, he has performed with a who’s who of legendary musicians including Bob Dylan, Jerry Jeff Walker, George Harrison, John Prine, Tom Paxton, Sha Na Na, Carly Simon, his early mentor The Reverend Gary Davis, Rosalie Sorrels, Ed Sanders (The Fugs), Richie Havens, Al Kooper, Ringo Starr, Phoebe Snow, Ravi Shankar, and many others.

David Bromberg was plugged in, reacting to and interacting with his audience, grinning at appreciative remarks and questioning the lucidity of one listener’s repeated off-topic remarks. A seasoned performer at his peak, simultaneously exuberant and reserved with a perfectionist edge. He excelled as singer, player, and bandleader. Leading a big band is a role his clearly caresses with all his years of experience. He propels the players with nods of his head, looks into their eyes, and slight waves of his hands, while giving grins of approval as they excel.

Befitting the brassy nature of the big band, Bromberg emphasized rollicking blues rock numbers accentuated with his acidic humor. Many of the tunes lamented relationships gone from sour to rotten. You’d never know he is a long-time family man who, with his wife, the artist Nancy Josephson, owns and operates an extensive violin sales and repair shop and is, along with her, a substantial contributor to the Wilmington, Delaware Grand Opera House, where he sometimes performs, in his current hometown. Bromberg himself is considered one of the finest acoustic music players in the world, a master of violin/fiddle, guitar, pedal steel guitar, mandolin, and other instruments. In this performance, he concentrated on electric guitar, switching at times to acoustic guitar. Nancy Josephson was missing that night, normally providing backing vocals, having herself played with legends such as Arlo Guthrie and Peter Rowan and was a member of The Buffalo Gals.

Bromberg left the stage at one point to his long-time band member Mark Cosgrove for him to manifest his melodic finger-picking virtuosity on acoustic guitar. Cosgrove first learned to love guitar from listening over and over to his dad’s Bromberg records. Bromberg praised Cosgrove before telling him “Now, don’t fuck up” as he walked off stage. Afterwards, Bromberg returned and said, “That’s the best I’ve ever heard him play that song” with an admiring shake of the head.

The show featured several songs from the Big Band’s three-part album, “Big Road,” including the title tune woven vocally with Bromberg’s edgy bass-y sound and his soaring tenor riffs. Another choice from the album was a solid four-part harmony on “Standing in the Need of Prayer.”

He didn’t play much from his hit-song repertoire, such as the satirical “The Hold-up” that he co-wrote with Beatle George Harrison, or the ubiquitous “Mr. Bojangles,” his heart-bending cover of the original song written and first performed by another mentor of his, Jerry Jeff Walker, with whom he toured for two years, often telling the story of how Walker met the actual Mr. Bojangles in a drunk tank.

The band featured an all-star line-up of musicians–Cosgrove, Nate Grower, Josh Kanusky, Suavek Zaniesienko, Jon-Eric Kellso, Birch Johnson, and Matthew Koza–on a memorable melange of brass, woodwind, acoustic, and percussion instruments. They have played (or still play) with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Gil Evans, Tony Bennet, Artie Shaw Orchestra, Tito Puente, Jack Jones, Lionel Hampton, and others.

Back-up singers Natalie Smith and Kathleen Weber blended seamlessly, but were noticeable in their melding of floating (Smith) and belting (Weber) voices.

Seventeen-year-old phenom Veronica Lewis, a gregarious keyboard player and vocalist, was a fitting opener with her leg-kicking homage to her idol Jerry Lee Lewis and nods to blues legends like Katie Webster. She evoked Mardis Gras and honky-tonks with the poise of a long-established performer.

All of this was fitting to occur on The Birchmere stage, home for half-a-century to many of the best and most famed artists of the past several decades in a house dedicated to music listening.