David Bromberg is the reluctant rock star: as much as he’d like to be a simple man working at his violin shop, he can’t avoid the spotlight. He started out in the late ’60s, playing with the likes of Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan, and receiving accolades from the press. After a career-launching performance at the Isle of White festival in 1970, he signed with Columbia Records and was poised to be among the greatest stars of his time.
Then, as he told me in an interview, “I decided that more than anything, I wanted to be able to pick up a violin and be able to tell when and where it was made.” He left the spotlight, opened a violin shop in Maryland, and spent the next 25 years living a quiet life.
“I got burned out. I concluded that I was no longer a musician. I didn’t want to drag myself onto the stage and do a bitter imitation of something I used to love. I wanted another way to live my life.”
He dove into his studies of music. He studied the violin—not just how it sounded, but its history, cultural significance, and construction. In his violin shop, he meets all sorts of musicians and constructs and fixes instruments. He stayed connected to the music scene without letting it rule his life.
But he couldn’t hide from his talent and his showmanship. In 2007, he came out with his first album in decades, Try Me One More Time. It came together easily, fluidly. The album earned Bromberg a Grammy nomination.
“Why didn’t they tell me that before?” he said of the almost accidental success.
He was back in the limelight, for better or worse, and has since come out with several more albums, including Use Me in 2011, which features some of Bromberg’s favorite collaborations. Bromberg’s well of connections runs deep, resulting from his long career as a session musician in New York City working with some of the most prominent artists of the ’60s and ’70s. Coming back to these collaborations was a lot of fun, and he worked with Los Lobos, John Hiatt and Dr. John,
“Some were people I’ve known for a long time I knew I would enjoy working with,” Bromberg said, “and others were people I always wanted to work with who knew my music.”
Bromberg’s most recent album, Only Slightly Mad, came out last fall. When producer Larry Campbell first talked to him about the vision for the album, he said “Let’s do an old-fashioned David Bromberg album.”
To Bromberg, this meant drawing on a lot of influences, working across genres and being playful.
“We made an album with everything in it but the kitchen sink,” Bromberg said, “and if we could have found that, that would have gone in too.”
Onstage, Bromberg is a presence to behold, spitting lyrics with vengeance as if the wounds were still fresh. He plays the mandolin, the violin and the electric guitar. His talent is indisputable. But still, he’s open about the fact that where he’d most like to be is in his violin shop, alongside his wife, living the quiet life he couldn’t quite keep.
When Bromberg tours, he often finds his way back to the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett, which he first played before his 20-year hiatus from performing.
“It was scary when I first came in,” he recalled. “Just a bar with no stage. But it turned out to be a wonderful gig and I’ve always looked forward
David Bromberg returns to The Stephen Talkhouse, 161 Main Street, Amagansett, for an intimate show on Friday, July 11, at 8 p.m. Call 631-267-3117 or go to stephentalkhouse.com for tickets ($80–95) or more information.