On Wednesday evening, October 10, the 13th annual Woodstock Film Festival (WFF) will be kicking off with a bang and a twang, as lucky ticketholders get to view the New York premiere of David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure. In the spirit of WFF’s tradition of presenting lots of movies about music, Beth Toni Kruvant’s documentary offers up a tuneful and intimate portrait of one of America’s finest living singer/songwriter/guitarists. The 7:30 p.m. screening at the Woodstock Playhouse will be followed by a live performance by the man himself, with some of his many local admirers likely to sit in.
If David Bromberg never quite made it to household-name rock-star status, it’s not for want of brilliance as a performer. As the film makes clear, he never really sought the glitz and glamour of the celebrity lifestyle. But he’s so good at what he does that, quite early on in his career, celebrities started coming to him, offering studio and sideman gigs. People like Bob Dylan caught Bromberg’s early shows at small pass-the-hat clubs in Greenwich Village in the late ‘60s, and started telling their friends about this gangly young Jewish guy from Tarrytown who had been taking blues guitar lessons from the Reverend Gary Davis and internalizing them very well indeed.
Before long, George Harrison and Bromberg had written a song together, “The Holdup,” and Bromberg had a record contract. But superstardom continued to dance just out of reach, as record-store-owners scratched their heads over which bin should hold Bromberg’s gem-studded ‘70s albums. The problem was that the guy is just too damn versatile, and the term “Americana” as a musical genre hadn’t even been invented yet. Most might call him a bluesman first and foremost, but even there, he wields as much facility and passion picking acoustic country blues from deep in the Delta as he does bending strings in the electrified Chicago style or sliding a down-and-dirty bottleneck.
Just when you think that you’ve got him pegged, he’s likely to put the hardbody down and pick up a mandolin or fiddle and launch into a bluegrass tune or set of Celtic jigs and reels. Then it’s back to a dreadnought acoustic guitar for some lightning-fast country flatpicking or a lonesome cowboy ballad. It all depends on which sidemen he has with him in any given concert: his Big Band, with its crack horn section, or an ensemble that leans more toward strings, featuring some “new acoustic” luminary like David Grisman, Andy Statman or the Valley’s own Jay Ungar.
It was on the road that Bromberg really honed his art, in terms of both musicianship and connecting with an audience. He got started early practicing showmanship, having been a fairly accomplished amateur magician as a kid. And it helps that he’s clearly a very intelligent man with a wicked sense of humor. Much of his songwriting leans toward the scathing and satirical, playing to his ability to deliver a funny line in that unforgettably nasal voice. And even when he’s telling off some no-good woman in a blues number like “Will Not Be Your Fool” or “I’ll Take You Back,” or getting downright raunchy on his showstopper “Sharon,” he somehow manages never to come across as a sexist pig or a preening cock-of-the-walk. You can be a radical feminist and still want to have a beer with this guy.
Live audiences loved Bromberg, and he barely took a break from touring throughout the ‘70s. But by 1980 it had all caught up to him in the form of burnout, depression and a sense of no longer knowing who he was offstage. After a 1980 “farewell tour” he and his wife, singer Nancy Josephson, settled in Chicago and had a couple of kids; Bromberg threw himself into the study of violinmaking as wholeheartedly as he had done when he first picked up the guitar at age 13. He was off the road for 22 years, and his fans mourned.
Flash-forward to 2002, when the kids were grown and Josephson was thoroughly sick of Chicago winters. The couple relocated to Wilmington, Delaware and opened a violin shop in a deteriorated neighborhood that had once been the center of the city’s music scene. David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure opens in the present with Bromberg’s deep involvement in the revitalization of a blighted downtown, dives deep into his past and loops back again to the point where community jam sessions have finally gotten him interested in recording and touring again. We hear lots of testimonials from admiring musical colleagues, including some of the folks who wrote songs just for him to perform on his 2011 album Use Me: Dr. John, Keb’ Mo’ and Vince Gill. Man, it’s just good to have David back.
The Woodstock Film Festival will take place Wednesday, October 10 through Sunday, October 14 with screenings, panels, concerts and other events taking place in Woodstock, Rosendale, Rhinebeck, Saugerties and Kingston. For schedules and other details, see www.woodstockfilmfestival.com.