The week I got David Bromberg on the phone, one of the world's most forwarded/tweeted/shared story was right up his alley. A researcher at the University of Paris had conducted a blind test of violinists to see if they could tell the difference between a fine Stradivarius violin and a cheapie. The results: they couldn't.
Fiddlers, like Bromberg, however, would like to quibble.
"In this test, you had people listening to the instrument under their ear," Bromberg said, amid a list of faults he (and many others) have found with the study.
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"Things that sound great under the ear, to the person playing it, might sound terrible in the [performance] hall. That study has been done for centuries. The greatest French violin maker of the 19th century, [Jean-Baptiste] Vuillaume, copied Stradivaris and Guarneris and would have blind tests with someone playing the instruments behind a curtain. People would say which they liked best. It was always his, of course. The real point, though, is what can be heard -- what jumps out of a 40-piece orchestra -- at the back of the hall. That's the real trick."
This is not a column about classical music. Bromberg -- you remember Bromberg -- is easing back into the rockin' blues music he abandoned long ago at the height of his acclaim. He's got one of those star-studded stories: a student of the Rev. Gary Davis, a sought-after session musician who played with everyone from Bob Dylan to Ringo Starr, some great songs of his own ("Sloppy Drunk," "Never Be Your Fool"), a quiet Chicago resident from 1980 to 2002 and an occasional regular then at Buddy Guy's joint. He's retirement age now, a burly guy from upstate New York with a chin-strap beard, and he can play a lot of instruments really, really well.
But his favorite is the violin.
He moved to Chicago not because he was a blues guitarist and this was a blues town; he came to study at Skokie's Kenneth Warren School of Violin Making (now the Chicago School of Violin Making). In fact, Bromberg focused on that with such devotion that he eventually stopped writing, recording and touring.
By the time he relocated to Wilmington, Delaware, to open his own shop, David Bromberg Fine Violins, he'd been relegated to the status of a lost legend.
"I was burnt out," Bromberg said of his shift from performer to student, "and I was too stupid to realize it was burnout. I'd come off the road, and I wasn't practicing, writing, or jamming. I wasn't picking up an instrument until I went back on the road. I just thought I was no longer a musician. I didn't want to be one of those guys who drags himself on stage and gives a bitter imitation of something he used to love. There are more than enough of those guys. The only stimulation I got was in the violin shop."
He ensconced himself in Wilmington as a violin maker and detective. ("Sure there's a demand for it," he said. "Seventy-five percent of all cheap violins in the world say Antonio Stradivari in them. It takes someone to know which is which.") But slowly, his fingers started itching to play as well as craft and tinker. He hadn't made a record since 1990, but in 2007 Bromberg re-emerged with an LP of acoustic blues called "Try Me One More Time."
"I'd done a show down in Austin, Texas, with Chris Hillman [from the Byrds] and Herb Pedersen, and we were sitting backstage talking about when we started," Bromberg said. "I mentioned I had been one of Rev. Gary Davis' lead boys. He was blind -- a really genius guitar player -- and I used to lead him around in return for lessons. They asked if I could still play any of that. Sure enough, my fingers remembered. They said, 'You should be doing that, recording that.' By then, I realized, Davis was gone and so were many who studied with him. So I went into the studio and did a few tunes I'd learned from the Reverend. I didn't do them to death, once or twice. They came out OK. I kept going back. In a month, I had a CD."
"Try Me One More Time" was nominated for a Grammy the following year, and Bromberg's recording and performing career was reborn on a more comfortable scale. For the follow-up, though, he opted to let others do the work of writing and producing the songs.
"It really takes balls of brass to do this, but I asked different people if they would not only write a song for me but produce me doing it, as well. It's a lot to ask, but they all did it. They all knew just how to use me."
The new album, "Use Me," features songs by and performances with a variety of old and new friends. Levon Helm ("I've known him forever and ever") joins Bromberg for an old jug band tune, "Bring It With You When You Come," as well as the only Bromberg original on the new album, "Tongue." John Hiatt, the first pal Bromberg approached, wrote and sings on "Ride on Out a Ways." Others include Dr. John, Keb' Mo', a rare appearance by Linda Ronstadt, a fantastic tune ("Blue Is Fallin'") by Tim O'Brien. There's also Vince Gill, Los Lobos, even Widespread Panic, a band that's enjoyed something of a recent hit in its concerts with the Bromberg song "Sharon."
"Vince Gill and I had never met face-to-face but traveled in the same circles. I knew him when he was a hot mandolin player in bluegrass, in the Pure Prairie League. There's a young man from Wilmington [John Lippincott, aka Johnny Duke & the Aces] I'd been mentoring, a tremendous guitar player. He moved to Nashville, and I asked a friend to help him. He introduced him to Vince and told him Dave Bromberg said he was the best guitar player he ever heard. Vince hired him on the spot. If he thought that of me, seemed he might be interested in this. We cut a great song, one among many, I think."