In an age when much of American politics promotes our authoritarian, militaristic and xenophobic tendencies, it's great to be reminded of the endurance, affirmation and humor that are pillars of American culture, especially American music. And there's no better place to remember that than at a David Bromberg concert, with its gumbo of blues, country, folk and old-time music. Bromberg brought all of these to Town Hall in New York City last night, with the added treat of his wife's group, Angel Band.
I was late to the show, so I caught only the last three songs of Angel Band, but I was impressed. They're an eclectic group, as would be expected of any band associated with Bromberg. If their name recalls the country classic "Coal Tattoo," in which an aging miner says "I'm gonna pick coal where the blue heavens roll/ And sing with the angel band," their repertoire and singing style blend country, gospel, and pop. Angel Band (Nancy Josephson, who is Bromberg's wife, Kathleen Weber and Jen Schonwald) can be soulful, sexy, funny and mature all at once. Their version of "Angel in the Morning," a pop hit from my junior high school years, was fierce, passionate, and full-throated.
Bromberg and his band--horn section, drums, bass, violin and mandolin-- came out after a short break. It has been more than twenty years since I last saw him, but time has only strengthened his music. Bromberg has matured: his beard is grey, he's grown a bit stout, and he balances his electric guitar at the apex of his stomach in a way that recalls B.B. King. But the years haven't taken away anything from his playing. He's still a crisp, hard-working musician who joshes with his band, banters with his audience, and beautifully plays the electric guitar, acoustic guitar and fiddle. The crowded house cheered, called out requests, and basked in the show.
The blues has always been an important part of Bromberg's repertoire, and if anything the years have strengthened him as a bluesman. He's no longer the vulnerable young man who sang "Lucille" with pain and empathy, but a grown man who sings with a mixture of strength, anger, humor and ruefulness. As Albert Murray once observed, the greatness of the blues--and of the blues in American culture--lies in the affirmation of life in the face of adversity. In songs like "Will Not Be Your Fool" and "Who's Loving You Tonight?", Bromberg blended endurance and affirmation in the best American tradition. The high point of this came with their rendition, with Angel Band, of "Lost My Driving Wheel." Purists might quibble that "Driving Wheel" is more country than blues, but the key to Bromberg and company is that they bring to the song the aching exuberance of the blues.
Of course, it wasn't all blues. The band also broke into old-time fiddle tunes, "Dark Hollow," "The Holdup," and a great version of "Sharon." In "Sharon," the chronicle of a hoochie koochie girl, Bromberg broke into one of his characteristic speeches that are straight out of old-time vaudeville and medicine shows. When he confided that her gyrations shook him to his "oracular organs," you hear the cornball and laughter of generations of carnival barkers.
During the concert's encore number, "Will Not Be Your Fool," Bromberg barked that "you just cooked up this mess/to see how long you could keep me stuck in it." Inevitably, I thought of the Bush presidency. And perhaps that wasn't an accident. After the show, digging up background information for this post, I found a great protest song on Angel Band's Website, "We are Shepherds."
David Bromberg, Angel Band, and their supporting players made great music. They also recover the best of our past and still say important things for the present.