The Curmudgeon: A City Helps Out a Musician, and Vice Versa

Big Noise Festival is a public celebration of David Bromberg’s contributions to the city of Wilmington, Del.

Music Features David Bromberg
The Curmudgeon: A City Helps Out a Musician, and Vice Versa

The Curmudgeon is a monthly column on music trends, history and developments. Read more from the archive here.

David Bromberg’s Big Noise Festival wrapped up on Saturday, June 9, with its namesake performer trading guitar licks with Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on the old blues standard, “Key to the Highway.” With matching Telecasters, the two men alternated stinging solos while a four-man horn section reinforced the central theme. Behind the band on the outdoor stage in a city park, the lights from the condos across the way reflected off the Christina River. It was a fitting climax to a day and a half of superb music.

Wilmington, Del., may have named its festival after him, but Bromberg’s friendships in the music world pulled in performers who might otherwise have skipped this relatively small event. Saturday’s line-up included strong sets by Los Lobos, Bettye LaVette and Amy Helm, all of whom have personal connections to the headliner. The city helped him, and he helped the city.

That mutually beneficial relationship has been working for 16 years now. At the beginning of this century, Wilmington offered the noted roots musician and his wife, outsider-artist Nancy Josephson, a run-down former bank in the downtown area if they would renovate the building, live in it and get involved in the town’s cultural life. The couple accepted the offer, and it has paid off for both parties.

“The city was a mess back then,” Bromberg said backstage during the festival. “By 2 p.m., every store on Market Street, the main drag, was closed. It wasn’t a very nice place. But that’s what we were looking for: some place that was getting better, some place that when we left, it would be better than when we came.”

The city has come a long way since I first visited Bromberg there in 2007. The pawn shops, carry-out joints and boarded up buildings on Market Street have since been replaced by retail stores, restaurants and two major music venues: the Queen and the Grand Opera House. At the center of this renovation has been a red brick building with the sign: David Bromberg and Associates—Fine Violins. Inside the walls are lined with multiple rows of vintage violins, arguably the world’s best collection of old American violins, “the world’s most expensive wallpaper,” according to Josephson.

Down the hill from the shop are further signs of regeneration: Tubman Garrett Riverfront Park, a spruced-up city property between the train station and the river, was the site of the Big Noise Festival for the second straight year. The attendance is capped at 3,500 to keep the festival’s size manageable, and a fleet of food trucks parked by the train station’s parking garage provided artisanal food. It was a public celebration of Bromberg’s contributions to the city.

Between 1972 and 1980, he had released nine major-label albums, four on Columbia and five on Fantasy. He wasn’t famous or rich, but he as working steadily as a session guitarist (for Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and others) and as a touring bandleader. He was prized by critics and musos for his sparkling picking and his ability to revitalize both blues and hillbilly tunes with his wry sensibility. But he walked away from it all in 1980.

“I was touring so much,” he recalled at the festival, “that I went two years without being home for two weeks at a time. I wasn’t jamming or rehearsing or writing; I was very depressed. But when I hung out in this violin shop in Chicago, I enjoyed that. So I decided to become a violin dealer, and I thought I’d do that for the rest of my life. I even got rid of my guitar.”

This is the crisis point that many musicians reach at 35 or 40. If you’re good enough to work all the time but not lucky enough to become famous, life becomes a succession of one-off shows in different cities without much reward in terms of money, fame or artistic advancement. Some players keep spinning their wheels; some give up and get a day job. Some get jobs playing sessions or teaching music in college. Bromberg’s solution was to become a violin dealer—and after a while, to strike a deal with the city of Wilmington to find a supportive community and a permanent home for his shop and family.

“The people of Wilmington were such nice people,” he said, “that we didn’t understand it at first. We came from Chicago and New York, and we weren’t used to people saying hello and letting your car go first. We were like, ‘What’s with these people?’”

As the century odometer turned over, Bromberg and Josephson, who’d been living in Chicago, wanted to get back to the East Coast, and Wilmington, 33 miles south of Philadelphia and on the New York-Washington Amtrak line, seemed an inexpensive way to do it. The renovation of the bank cost far more than they had expected, so it wasn’t a great financial deal, but the small-city cultural scene revitalized their careers. Josephson began getting commissions from the American Visionary Art Museum in nearby Baltimore, and Bromberg started playing guitar again.

Bromberg’s contribution to the local scene was running two weekly jam sessions: a bluegrass session and a blues session. “I was actually apprehensive about playing again; I’d been playing so infrequently that I was like someone who plays softball once a year at the family picnic. But the sessions caught on, and people started coming from far away. They got me performing again, and that’s my gift from Wilmington.”

The value of that gift was obvious during the festival’s final set. Bromberg—wearing a gray shirt, baggy jeans and a wispy gray beard—had expanded his usual touring quintet into an 11-member big band with the addition of two female singers and four horn players. He touched on all the corners of American roots music that he has explored over the years: electric blues, Appalachian string-band music, gospel hymns, Tex-Mex ballads and more. He was a generous bandleader, often asking each soloist to take another chorus—and then another—but his own solos were as impressive for their economy as for their imagination.

Los Lobos, who had contributed songwriting and instrumental backing to Bromberg’s 2011 album, Use Me, played the set before Bromberg’s. It was disappointing that a band with three of the best songwriters of the baby-boomer generation would play so many cover songs, but their fun was contagious as they reinvented songs by Fleetwood Mac, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, the Who, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Neil Young and Lil’ Bob and the Lollipops.

Amy Helm sings on Bromberg’s new album, Only Slightly Mad, which is dedicated to her father Levon, who had also played on Use Me. Amy’s afternoon set at Big Noise unveiled a moody version of the Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan” from her Joe Henry-produced album, due in September. And when she sang “She Don’t Love You,” a 1965 single by Levon & the Hawks, or “Yes, We Can Can,” which Allen Toussaint wrote for the Pointer Sisters, Amy and her terrific back band united message and rhythm into an inseparable unity.

But the best set of the day came from LaVette, who devoted her entire set to nine of the dozen Bob Dylan songs on her new album, Things Have Changed. This was the last time the veteran R&B singer was doing an all-Dylan show, she revealed backstage. From here on out, she will be mixing the Dylan songs in with her older repertoire.

Watch Betty LaVette perform live from the Paste Studio:

LaVette, dressed in silver-strap heels and a sleeveless white pantsuit, was a force of nature on stage. She took radical liberties with Dylan’s songs, and her gambles all paid off. She transformed “Mama, You’ve Been on my Mind” from a song about an ex-lover into a song about her late mother. She recast the guarded commentary of “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” into the unguarded plea of a woman trying to save a relationship. She altered the folk-rock anthem “The Times They Are A-Changin’” into a funky dance number by adding an instrumental response to every sung line.

Big Noise was a festival marked by a distinct personality, Bromberg’s, and by a distinct sense of place, Wilmington’s. It was such an effective partnership between a musician and a municipality that one wonders why more cities and players don’t try it. Rather than be cocooned in a university, middle-aged musicians would do better off out in a real community, inspiring everyday people—and getting inspired by them in return. And artists are proven catalysts for revitalizing depressed neighborhoods.

It wouldn’t work in a city such as New York or Chicago, too big for one musician to make much difference. And it wouldn’t work in a small town, too small to build an artistic community. But for a city in the 50,000-to-200,000-population range, such a partnership can work wonders. It has in Wilmington.

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