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David Bromberg brings his band, his blues, his best

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

IN TUNE: I love Eric Clapton as much as the next guy. But no white boy on the planet plays the blues like David Bromberg. Giving a packed City Winery crowd two hours of the nastiest, been down since he began to crawl pickin’ the scab till it bleeds blues — mixed with bluegrass, funk, ragtime, waltzes and all what-else — Bromberg didn’t look or sound like a guy about to turn 66.

David Bromberg (CLIFFVIEW PILOT photos)

Bromberg unveiled his reconstituted seven-piece band, the members all taking turns with both flash and substance (Look up “crackerjack” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of these guys).

The proudly grinning maestro brought his A game on the Telecaster, along with his charismatic sass — lyrics loaded, as always, with one-liners, puns and good-man-done-wrong putdowns.

“I got a call tonight before the show from President Obama,” Bromberg said . “I asked him what I could do to help the economy. He said, ‘Bring a lot of shit to sell.’ So I got DVDs, I got CDs….”

Bromberg, who grew up in Tarrytown, also resurrected an old joke in referring to City Winery: “The only wine I’d ever heard of in New York before was ‘Take me to Florida’.”

Pants hiked, marching to the lip of the stage in his Tommy Bahama shirt to sing without his microphone, Bromberg was easily the most comfortable guy in the house. Ironic, too: Although he’s got a massive catalog of his own to go with a host of covers, he never brings a setlist.

And since it was the very first show for one of his band members, he said, “we’ve got him playing a lot of shit he’s never heard before in his life.” Robert Amiot, Bromberg’s bassist the past 20 years, played conductor, giving cues while anchoring the beats.

The blues was steamy, the cut-to-the-quick kind that Big Bill Broonzy made a staple of his repertoire, enriched by Bromberg’s mature yet lusty baritone. The bluegrass would have made Bill Monroe smile.

Bromberg’s eclectic set also included the lovely, classic blues tune “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” which had most everyone shoe-horned into the Varrick Street club singing, clapping and swaying. It rode a captivating clarinet solo to the end.

“Dark Hollow,” with Amiot sharing vocals, was as fresh as ever, a rumbling train of a song, with splashes of bluegrass and Dixieland, that will likely last forever. Since the very first time I saw David Bromberg nearly 35 years ago, he has surrounded himself with incredibly talented professionals who bring depth and soul while the whispers and roars. This group is right there with the best of ’em — especially the brass section. They clearly brought the biggest smiles of appreciation from the boss.

As usual, we got several treats: The show-opening female trio the Angel Band (with Bromberg’s wife, Nancy Josephson), chimed in from behind the soundboard for a rousing close to the funky “If You Don’t Want Me.” And Bromberg, as he’s been doing on this tour, performed a lovely instrumental version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

To think, the guy pretty much tossed it all so he could build violins. It was only after he and Josephson moved to Wilmington, Del., that others managed to nudge him back into the business. We’re all the better for it.

A musicologist taught to play guitar by the Rev. Gary Davis back in Greenwich Village’s folk heyday, Bromberg can make his instrument bark, coo, wail or snarl like no one since Albert Collins – even had a conversation with it on the crowd favorite “Sharon.” There’s good reason why Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jerry Garcia, Willie Nelson and many other greats have revered (and, more tellingly, hired) this man .

Bromberg riffed through country and bluegrass-flavored numbers, as well as the bittersweet lament that defies labels, “This Love Affair,” which he’s made into a primer on playing the slide. He even grabbed a fiddle during a full-on jig before snatching up the Fender again to slide into some more steamy Chicago blues, followed by the mournful “Driving Wheel.”

Bromberg’s latest album is one of the best American roots records you’ll hear this year, and one of the most unique: He got some of his favorite artists to write, record on AND help produce a song each.  The album’s title?  “Use Me” (the Bill Withers song – remember?).

Tunes played Friday night included “Digging in the Deep Blue Sea,” by Keb Mo, as we well as “Lookout Mountain Girl” by Vince Gill and Guy Clark. Others on the record: Dr. John, Linda Ronstadt, John Hiatt, Los Lobos and Levon Helm.

The decades-old “Bring It With You When You Come” was raunchy blues at its best – so good that Bromberg transformed it into “Wooly Bully.” The audience roared, although not as loud as when he brought the only self-penned tune on the album, the hard-swinging “Tongue,” which swelled to its kiss-off conclusion:

“And don’t give me that shit about how he ain’t half the man that I am, cause, little girl, you should’ve known that right from the start…. Don’t talk about it, cause I don’t want to hear your lies. Turn off the waterworks, because I refuse to stand here and watch you cry. And one more thing: Get your tongue outta my mouth, because I’m kissin’ you goodbye.”

For all its eclecticism, City Winery has become grounded in American roots music, same as Friday night’s headliner has always been. And although Bromberg was a natural fit, the majesty and artistry pouring from the stage was truly bigger than the room itself.

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