I generally end up having at least one music-oriented conversation per day at my office.
It happens each afternoon, when one particular co-worker makes his rounds. He religiously wears earbuds, despite a company policy that discourages them. His habit kept us from speaking much at all for the first few months we interacted. Eventually, I decided it’d be worth it to interrupt and ask what sort of sounds he had flowing through the things.
“Nothing,” he replied.
To my surprise, 80 percent of the time he’s listening to air (i.e., no music). I can’t say I’ve never done this myself. I’ve found that earbuds can serve as a sneaky avenue for eavesdropping in a crowded bus, or as a tool for deterring overdrawn conversations with acquaintances at the grocery store. More commonly, I become so enthralled in a task that I only later realize the playlist is over and I haven’t yet bothered to choose the next selection.
Generally, though, I prefer to use earbuds for what they are intended. So does my coworker, to whom I now pose a slightly different question each afternoon: “Are you listening to anything today?”
Now that we’re talking about music (or the lack thereof), we’ve naturally moved to the icebreaker topic of genre. Lots of folks will say they listen to “everything except rap and country.” Some of those on the other end of the spectrum of specificity will name their favorite two or three bands, claiming their favorite genre to be “stuff like that.”
Whether I’m playing or listening, my criterion is simple: If it sounds good to me, I like it. My favorite type of music is “good” music.
I’d imagine David Bromberg might share similar views. His most recent album “Only Slightly Mad” sits in the “traditional folk” category on iTunes and Amazon, and Wikipedia calls it “folk/folk-rock/blues” despite the wide range of other stuff you’ll find on the full-length recording.
Bromberg himself says the album has “everything in the world on it.” It really does. The first track, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” has blues written all over it and demonstrates the solo guitar stylings that first brought Bromberg to fame. By track three, the pace mellows but the passion swells with full back-up vocals and a soulful saxophone solo in “Drivin’ Wheel”.
Track five, “Strongest Man,” comes out of nowhere with a Celtic-esque a capella number like nothing else we’ve yet heard; by the end of the track, a full band blasts out a tune that sounds straight out of a contra dance hall.
In addition to stylistic diversity, “Only Slightly Mad” follows Bromberg’s lyrical journey of highs, lows and everything in between. He utilizes the blues to address his own shortcomings and common struggles, often with humorous undertones.
In “Keep On Drinkin’”, he sings of losing his health, relationships and salvation for love of the bottle – “When you die, you won’t care which place you’re sent to; hell and heaven both are dry.”
Regardless, the tune is so lively that it’s hard not to like.
“Last Date” is musically less forgiving than “Drinkin’” as it tells a story of self-induced heartbreak paired with soulful fiddle and tear-jerking steel guitar melodies. Aptly following, “Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Mornin’” may have been written on the day after that last date – “I’d best not hear ya whisper her name; I could kill ya faster than an express train.”
Again, it’s hard not to like this tune regardless of its sorrowful nature; its character-filled brass and clarinet interludes interact with Bromberg’s vocals as if they’re all in conversation.
Perhaps out of concern for his listeners, “I’ll Rise Again” appears near the end, providing musical and lyrical redemption for the hardships endured previously in the album. Backed by a gospel-style choir, Bromberg sings, “I may be down, but I’ll rise again … This is a beautiful world, and it is a privilege to live in it. Live in it.”
In all, “Only Slightly Mad” takes me to many different places – to the bar, to church, to folk festival, back to my childhood, forward toward death – like life, it is diverse and surprising, haunting at one minute and blissful the next.
I’ve got to admit, the likelihood of me picking this album out of thousands in the “traditional folk” category is slim, but I’m truly glad to have found it. I’m thankful that musicians like Bromberg don’t limit themselves to labels; they thrive as a result of letting their personal style grow in whatever direction it will. We as listeners should likewise avoid filtering musicians by stuffing them into categories, lest we miss out on something life changing.
The David Bromberg Band will kick off the 28th annual Juneau Jazz and Classics festival at 7 p.m. Friday in the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall. Tickets are available at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and online at www.jazzandclassics.org.
• Libby Stringer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.