David Bromberg has long been a musical hero of mine. I can remember many years ago trying to imitate his version of “Send Me to the ‘Electric Chair” to a less-than-enthralled audience that shrank as the song went on. Over the years he has shown his versatility playing guitar, fiddle and mandolin as he examined the multiple roots of American music, from blues to bluegrass to ragtime. His songwriting exhibits a sly sense of humor. After a 17 year recess from recording, in which, among other things, he learned the art of violin making, he came back with the well-received Try Me One More Time in 2007.
In creating the new release Use Me, Bromberg asked some of his many friends in the music industry (including John Hiatt, Dr. John, Widespread Panic, Linda Ronstadt, and Los Lobos) to write or suggest songs, create arrangements, and join him on specific tracks. With this approach, Bromberg is taking some risks since, to some extent, he’s stepping outside his wheelhouse. He focuses on some genres that he may not be totally comfortable with, and places the focus more on his vocal delivery, never his greatest strength.
Not surprisingly, the strongest tracks are those that come closest to a traditional
Bromberg repertoire. The traditional jug band tune “Bring it With You When You Come,” arranged by Levon Helm, features some catchy mandolin licks from Larry Campbell and some nice slide guitar fills from Bromberg. “Look Out Mountain Girl,” by Vince Gill and Guy Clark, has some very nice give and take between the soloists, who include Bromberg on acoustic guitar, Gill on mandolin and electric guitar, Jack Pearson on slide guitar and Pete Wasner on keyboards. “Blue is Fallin’” by Tim O’Brien has some nice ensemble playing and effective background vocals from O’Brien and Nancy Josephson (who is also Bromberg’s wife).
The blues-oriented numbers also pack a punch. They include “Diggin’ in the Deep Blue Sea,” by Keb’ Mo’, which includes with this vivid image:
This old world is just a junky,
All strung out on gasoline,
Now they’ve got boats on the water,
Digging in the deep blue sea.
Bromberg’s phrasing emphasizes the ultimate absurdity of our collective situation. The up-tempo blues “Tongue” (written by Bromberg), is arranged by Larry Campbell and includes a catchy horn section.
Bromberg also tries his hand at a couple of R&B-oriented numbers. He makes a game effort on “You Don’t Want to Make Me Mad” by Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) and Velma Allen. But his singing deficiencies catch up with him on the title track “Use Me,” the Bill Withers hit from 1972. Bromberg’s tremulous vocals simply don’t cut it for this kind of material. Additionally, the arrangement has a curious lack of energy.
So how does this stack up to the rest of the David Bromberg collection? Bromberg could have played it safe, and he deserves kudos for avoiding that option. With one or two exceptions, the risks pan out. This wouldn’t necessarily be the first Bromberg album I would recommend to a new listener, but it is enjoyable, and fans will be able to view some new sides to an old master.