Jorma Kaukonen/Barry Mitterhoff, David Bromberg and Friends, Grand Opera House, Wilmington, DE- 2/24
There was a slight chill in the air as folks made their way to the Grand Opera House for the fifth installment of David Bromberg’s “My Own House” series. The dynamic Bromberg recently moved to downtown Wilmington, opened a retail violin shop, and resurrected his live performance career after being for the most part away from the stage for fifteen years or so. Now he is fueling the downtown Wilmington scene by joining in various weekly jam sessions in town, and hosting this series during which he features various musical friends, who come to perform for the crowd on their own and in collaboration with David. In the past David has shared the stage with The Radiators, Southside Johnny, Arlo Guthrie and his own Big Band (with whom he performs only occasionally even with his return to regular gigging) as part of this series. Tonight, the legendary veteran of Jefferson Airplane, co-founder of Hot Tuna, and backbone of the hugely successful Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp, Jorma Kaukonen was the featured guest.
Bromberg started the show with a solo acoustic version of the whimsical ode to aggressively laid-back living, “I Like To Sleep Late In The Morning’ and then moved to center stage to deliver an unamplified version of “Drown In My Own Tears” (Ok, his acoustic guitar was plugged in, but it was very low). As Bromberg crooned, the current singers from the Angel Band (a side project which features Bromberg and some local musicians that he has met at the aforementioned local jam sessions including three female vocalists, one of which is his wife, Nancy Josephson) moved to the center aisle of the theater, a scant seven rows from the stage, and shortly thereafter provided Bromberg with some backing vocals from the middle of the crowd. Audible ooohs and aaaahs from the crowd heightened the chills in my spine as I sat three rows behind the AB ladies, who were lifting their voices and filling the room with organic harmony. It was one of those moments that to some extent break down the barrier between artist and audience, providing an early highlight to this marvelous evening. During the out chorus, Bromberg embellished passionately (“somebody throw me a lifeline”) as the trio of female voices repeated the title line and the audience was captivated. The song ended – the crowd roared with approval, and the lovely ladies took their place on the main stage. The full Angel Band delivered a plaintive piece with the repeated line “Time Is Winding Up,” and a vocally overwrought, instrumentally-tentative and generally out-of-place reading of “Angel In The Morning.” The female vocalists then departed, and Bromberg fronted the rest of the Angel Band for two songs, one an admonishment of false-hearted lovers, the other a bluegrass instrumental featuring some tasty violin from Jeff Wiser (who is also a member of Bromberg’s quartet).
Bromberg then introduced Kaukonen and the two sat down to deliver five songs as a “sort of” amplified acoustic duo. They had performed at Jorma’s guitar camp a tad over three months previous to this venture, and frequently in the mid to late eighties. The two effortlessly moved from quiet moments of subtle, intricate guitar work to more aggressive, energetic spaces in unison. Bromberg let out more than a couple of audible responses to Jorma’s riffs. Jorma was so outstanding that he may have exposed a little bit of the rust that Bromberg still needs to shake off from his lengthy hiatus from performing, but it was still a riveting collaboration. They started with one of the songs they had played at the FPR, “Uncle Sam Blues,” the timeless Snooks Eaglin story of a soldier about to be dispatched to a war zone. Jorma wearily delivered the poignant line, “kill somebody over there, won’t have to break no kind of law” while Bromberg carefully decorated in the background.
Bromberg then sang lead vocals on “Big Road Blues” and in classic Bromberg fashion, he even vocally referenced Tommy Johnson’s version of the song. Thompson was a delta blues prot of Charley Patton and made a name for himself eight decades or so ago and in this song he sings unwaveringly about not wanting to go down “that big ol’ road myself.” With the war theme in the air, I couldn’t help but think that this could have been a subtle reference to the Airport Road which is described by many covering the war as the most dangerous part of Iraq. I kind of thought this to myself for a second, and then dismissed it, until Jorma followed with a somewhat intense take on “Re-Enlistment Blues.” This was a particularly timely number given the fact that many members of the military have been asked to return to service lately. Jorma also revealed that he had learned the song from the movie, From Here To Eternity. This was the one song that maintained a somber feel throughout, as the duo eschewed any picking frenzies and in favor of appropriately restrained, and at times almost haunting tones. Bromberg then offered a version of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.” Bringing forth possibly his strongest vocal of the evening, Bromberg was clearly engrossed and Kaukonen deftly wove ahead, behind and along with his vocal line. While introducing “Keep On Truckin’ Mama” Jorma pointed out that Bromberg knew some verses of that song, “I know because I stole some from you,” he said. Curiously, Bromberg did not sing any of them, but the two engaged in some fiery interplay and the Angel Band returned to close the set with a version of “Who Do You Love” that had Jorma smiling and digging the interplay with David’s Wilmington friends.
After Bromberg hosted the MOH series show with Arlo Guthrie last May, he received a couple of letters complaining that the audience had only been able to enjoy 15 or 20 minutes of strictly Arlo. Somebody actually complained about too much collaborating, a feeling pretty much unfathomable to me. While at least 95% of the audience that night was mesmerized by the impromptu versions of a bunch of classics, the small vocal minority may have had an impact on Bromberg. Breaking the form of that had been set with the previous Bromberg-hosted Opera House events, Jorma returned for most of the rest of the evening sans Bromberg. Many who had traveled far were a tad disappointed by this, and it seems as though the two could have played more than six songs together in the first set if it was known beforehand that they would only perform two songs together in the late set.
However, Jorma delivered an absolutely stellar performance in this incredible sounding room. He was joined by Barry Mitterhoff who has been performing with Jorma for over three years and the two have already developed an unthinkable chemistry. Mitterhoff’s diverse background is probably a big part of the reason that he seems to have a fresh idea with every version of every song. He has played with the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, the New York Mandolin Symphonette, Tony Trischka, Eugene Chadbourne, Lynn Morris, Hazel Dickens and Tex Logan (a Texas bluegrass musician who is also a theoretical mathematician) to name a few. He has performed in a number of klezmer bands and is a student of the choro music of Brazil. Needless to say, this guy brings a lot to the table, and he makes smart use of the generous amount of space he is given by Kaukonen. Mitterhoff moved smartly from rhythm backing to a rhythmic lead during “Parchman Farm” and then was tightly wound with Jorma instrumentally as they segued into “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” Also, his interplay with Jorma made for a downright majestic take on the classic, “Good Shepherd.”
Kaukonen’s playing and singing is better than ever. Back in the days of, let’s say, more casual vocal enunciating from Jorma (circa late 70s, early 80s), a version of Merle Haggard’s “More Than My Ol’ Guitar” would have been pointless. However, as the seemingly ageless guy gets better and better, this version was quite enjoyable in no small part due to the clarity of his vocals. This also helped make “Serpent of Dreams” a little more understandable as we are now able to pick up lyrics like “Down in the mine, circled round a diamond. Serpent of your expectations sleeps a nervous dream,” when 25 or so years ago these would have probably been inaudible due to mumble.
Jorma was fashioning a sporty fedora which he revealed was being worn at the behest of his wife, Vanessa. He also shared with the captive audience the fact that “Heart Temporary” (a moving original that has been introduced to his repertoire in recent years) was framed around a phrase (“self-inflicted holes in the heart”) that popped up in a conversation with Vanessa.
Other highlights included a soulful take on the depression-era number “Bread Line Blues” from Kaukonen’s Blue Country Heart CD before which Jorma mentioned that while most of the “acoustic” songs were being played on instruments that were actually plugged in, for “Bread Line Blues” Barry was actually going to perform on a genuinely acoustic banjo. Again the amazing acoustics of the room came into play as the banjo’s bright tone sang out with clarity. This was followed by a rare acoustic take on “Come Back Baby” which gave the song a pleading tone, in sharp contrast with the almost admonishing quality of the searing live versions Hot Tuna was delivering during electric sets last year.
The end of the evening found Bromberg returning to the stage and to share some nice musical inputs during “Just Because” (particularly during the first verse) and the encore of, “Hesitation Blues.”
David Bromberg’s “My Own House” series will continue with an all-Bromberg evening on April 21 featuring a headline performance from his quartet, and an opening set from the Angel Band. Bromberg will also hit the road with Hot Tuna for the first time in nearly two decades this summer. Currently they are scheduled to perform at the Ram’s Head Live in Baltimore June 23, the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island June 24 and outside of the legendary Stone Pony in Asbury Park on June 25.