Eclectic Energies

David Bromberg will show off a lifetime of influences headlining the Folk Festival

"I'm the kind of person who loves all kinds of music, and I love playing everything," says David Bromberg, a legendary player of folk, blues, rock, R&B, jazz, country and bluegrass.

Bromberg will show off his famously eclectic tastes and virtuosic ways with stringed instruments as the headlining act at this year's Tucson Folk Festival. Backed by a four-piece band, Bromberg will close the first day of the fest with a 9 p.m. set on Saturday, May 4, on the Plaza Stage in El Presidio Park.

Other artists on that stage Saturday night will include Ryanhood (at 7), John Coinman (7:30) and Sabra Faulk and the Angel Band (at 8).

Stefan George and Lavinia White & Friends will close the festival Sunday. They'll play at 8 p.m., preceded at 7 on the Plaza Stage by Nancy McCallion and her Wee Band, featuring Steve Grams and Danny Krieger.

More than 120 other acts will perform on five stages for more than 20 hours during the free, two-day festival.

Bromberg—who was born 67 years ago in Philadelphia and was raised in Tarrytown, N.Y.—grew up listening to rock 'n' roll and radio pop, like most kids his age. He reckons his first passion was for the blues, though. And under its thrall he picked up a guitar at 13.

However, his relationship with music began earlier, when he was just a kid in the early 1950s. "My first musical experiences were my mother playing piano and singing to my brother and me. She sang folk songs from the Fireside Book of Folk Songs."

His early listening included everything from folk heroes such as Pete Seeger, the Weavers and the Rev. Gary Davis to blues icons like Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters. Then he discovered bluegrass masters such as Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe and Doc Watson.

In the early 1960s, he figured his interest in music would serve him well during musicology studies at Columbia University, but the call of the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York City was too strong.

"I think that, to some degree, every serious musician is a musicologist. But, anyway, I left college when I realized it wasn't what I wanted to do, and around that time, I started playing professionally."

His popularity grew as he backed up such folk artists as Tom Paxton, Jerry Jeff Walker and Rosalie Sorrels. He attracted the respect of many of his peers as a top session musician, playing guitar, Dobro, mandolin and fiddle on hundreds of recordings for the likes of Bob Dylan, Link Wray, the Eagles, Ringo Starr, Willie Nelson, Carly Simon, Gordon Lightfoot, Bonnie Raitt and Dough Sahm, among others. He also famously collaborated with George Harrison and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia.

Bromberg's well-received solo spot at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 won him a recording contract with Columbia Records, and he began recording and touring as a bandleader.

He recorded such memorable 1970s studio albums as Demon in Disguise, Midnight on the Water and Reckless Abandon, but was also well known for leading an explosive live band through marathon concerts, such as is documented on his 1976 live album, How Late'll Ya Play 'Til?

Eventually, the constant touring took its toll, Bromberg says.

"My career (in the 1970s) was going quite well. Things were on an upward course. But I was working like someone should never work. I was on the road for four years without as much as two weeks off at a time. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was burnt out."

He says now that playing music at the end of the '70s became a compulsion for him, and he no longer did it because he enjoyed it.

"I concluded that I was not in love with music anymore. I had to find a way to live my life that was more healthy, and a way that I could do different things and still be fulfilled."

In 1980, Bromberg took a sabbatical from music-making. He and his wife, Nancy Josephson, an artist and singer, moved from Northern California to Chicago, where he studied at the Kenneth Warren & Son School of Violin Making.

That pursuit turned into a second career, and eventually Bromberg and Josephson relocated to Wilmington, Del., where they live now, and he opened the business David Bromberg Fine Violins.

"I don't do violin repairs, and I don't build them," he says.

"I went to violin fixing school to learn how to look at the violin. I am, for the lack of a better word, a violin expert. People bring me their violins to identify and appraise them. My functions are the identification and selling and buying of violins."

And somewhere along the line, he rekindled his love for making and playing music.

He started recording again with 1990's Sideman Serenade and continues to tour and release new material—albeit at a more healthy pace. He'll often go out for a show or two on the weekend and then return home.

He's found a balance of sorts. "I find that, after a while, getting up and going to work gets to be a grind. Then I look forward to when I'm getting ready to go out on the road. And after a few nights of playing on the road, I start to miss my life at home."

Bromberg's last album was 2011's Use Me, which he released on his label, Appleseed Records. It featured an all-star lineup of guests, most of whom contributed the songs they sang with him. Among them were Dr. John, Los Lobos, John Hiatt, Linda Ronstadt, Keb' Mo' and Widespread Panic.

The album was produced by close friend Larry Campbell, another talented multi-instrumentalist who also worked with Bromberg on his latest CD, which will be released this fall.

Bromberg was saddened to learn of the death of his old friend Richie Havens on the day this interview was held. He's still mourning the passing of the Band's Levon Helm, who played on Use Me.

As blues and folk heroes pass away, Bromberg expects new ones to arise. He thinks that this weekend's Tucson Folk Festival has the potential to feature younger musicians who may become influential.

"I would be very surprised if there weren't some future legends in the lineup. Depending on how far they are down the road, maybe you will see them go much farther."