David Bromberg didn’t pick up a guitar for 22 years, but he sure picked up a bunch of them on Saturday at the Crystal Bay Casino.
The David Bromberg Quintet played at Lake Tahoe for the first time, but the band leader’s reputation proceeded him. As expected, the music covered many styles. There was great humor, the song selections were improvised, a fan was admonished for making a request (after Bromberg advised concertgoers he doesn’t take them), and the delivery was chillingly passionate.
Bromberg, 73, is no longer the speedy player that he once was. Taking so much time off from playing took that away, he said in an interview before the show. Instead of showing off fiery fingerpicking, the superb quintet took its time and savored each note.
“It’s not just how you do them,” Bromberg said. “It’s how you mean them, too.”
Bromberg is such the quintessential artist that he played Americana music before the term was coined.
Like a string jazz ensemble, the players took their turns with solos, first with Mark Cosgrove on electric guitar or mandolin, then fiddler Nate Grower and finally to Bromberg, the smiling, charismatic sage with a collection of guitars lined behind him. Bassist Suavek Zaniesienko and drummer John Kanusky were as tight as a finely tuned column mantel clock.
The concert featured flatpicking bluegrass, folk tunes, a waltz, a capella gospel (Kanusky has quite the baritone with Zaniesienko adding tenor) and it all opened with a raucous rendition of “Walkin’ Blues” from Bromberg’s latest album, “The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues.”
Due to burnout, Bromberg stopped playing music for more than two decades. He took violin-making classes in Chicago before moving to Wilmington, Delaware, where he is the proprietor of a violin sales and repair shop. At the urging of the city’s mayor, he hosted a weekly jam session and had so much fun with it that he returned to the studio and, occasionally, the road. Two members of his quintet came from the jam sessions.
Bromberg has released four studio records since 2007’s Grammy nominated “Try Me One More Time.” During the Lake Tahoe performance, the first two songs were from the latest album. But his longtime fans were treated to some of his earliest work.
He played two songs from his 1972 album, “Demon in Disguise,” along with “The Joke’s On Me” from 1975, and “Fairfax County,” which Bromberg performed live in the early 1980s but never recorded in the studio. And on this night, because he was in a casino, the band played 1977’s “Summer Wages,” a story of a love lost that opens, “Never hit 17 when you play against the dealer.”
After each tune, Bromberg looked down and sometimes paced before deciding which song to play next. His band members must know a hundred of them. It was amazing to witness. He noted that it interrupts his concentration when someone shouts a request.
Darren Senn, South Lake Tahoe’s burgeoning solo folk artist, opened the concert. He admitted nervousness to be playing in the venerable Crown Room and to be opening for Bromberg, a hero to musicians. But as Bromberg said, it’s not about the notes, it’s how you play them, and Senn warmed the crowd with his original songs and charming delivery.
“It was an epic night. Best crowd I ever played for, and David Bromberg was awesome…” Senn tweeted after the show.
In the back of the room, casino manager Bill Wood stood near some empty rows of chairs. Surprisingly, the show was not a sellout. It’s shoulder season, the time between summer and skiing when the tourists are away. But Wood was smiling.
“We may only break even, but I’ve been wanting to get David Bromberg for many years.” By the time Bromberg started playing, late arrivals had filled most of the chairs.
David Bromberg is now included among the litany of music legends who have performed in the Crystal Bay Casino, including Gatemouth Brown, Leon Russell, Dr. John, The Neville Brothers and Derek Trucks.
By the encore, audience members were well-schooled in not making a song request. Bromberg’s selection was stunning.
He delivered “Mr. Bojangles,” the song on which he played guitar for Jerry Jeff Walker’s iconic tune in 1968. Bromberg didn’t digress from the song, as he used to do all those years ago, to tell the story of the real-life subject of the song. He didn’t need to. The knowing crowd, many silver-haired fans in their 60s and 70s, was rapt.
— Tim Parsons