When David Bromberg, one of America’s finest roots musicians, emerged from a recording hiatus of 17 years with the solo, acoustic, traditional folk-blues album Try Me One More Time (2007), fans and critics were thrilled, and the CD was rewarded with a Grammy nomination. For his follow-up album, Use Me, Bromberg chose a different approach: Why not ask some of his favorite singer-songwriters and musicians to write (or choose), produce, and perform on songs tailored to his versatile but distinctive skills as a guitarist and vocalist?
Answering David’s call were well-known artists from the many genres comprising the amorphous “Americana” musical category. Representing contemporary rootsy singer-songwriters: John Hiatt, the first musician Bromberg approached, who penned the pensive “Ride On Out a Ways” for him; for New Orleans “fonk,” Dr. John; there’s three-guitar jam band interplay with Widespread Panic and jug band music with Levon Helm (the sprightly “Bring It with You When You Come,” produced by Grammy-winning Larry Campbell). Linda Ronstadt puts in a rare appearance on a soulful Brook Benton ballad, Los Lobos contributes a Mexican-flavored waltz, Vince Gill and Tim O’Brien take care of the country and bluegrass quotient, Keb’ Mo’ brings the blues, and the hitmaking Butcher Brothers, producers Phil and Joe Nicolo (Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Cypress Hill, Nine Inch Nails) provide the languid R&B groove for the title song, a cover of Bill Withers’ classic “Use Me.”
Standout tracks change with each listening, but some of the highpoints include the crisp blues shuffle “Tongue,” the album’s lone Bromberg original, with Levon Helm on drums; “You Don’t Wanna Make Me Mad,” featuring David on slide guitar and Dr. John on piano; the ominous slow blues, “Diggin’ in the Deep Blue Sea,” updated by Keb’ Mo’ and Gary Nicholson from Larry Davis’s “Texas Flood” to address the dangers of offshore drilling, and the chipper Vince Gill / Guy Clark co-write, “Lookout Mountain Girl,” the only song on which David cedes most of the lead guitar duties (to Vince, although David splits the lead with Widespread Panic’s Jimmy Herring on “Old Neighborhood”).
Rather than collating individual instrumental parts literally phoned in to a central location, the recording sessions for Use Me generally took place on each guest artists’ home turf – in Woodstock (Levon Helm), New Orleans (Dr. John), Nashville (John Hiatt, Tim O’Brien, Vince Gill), Los Angeles (Los Lobos), and so on, to retain their regional flavor. For Bromberg, who started his professional career as an accompanist for everyone from Dion and Jay and the Americans to Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, the sessions were simultaneously a throwback to his sideman days and a sidestep from his own recordings. “As artist and producer, I get to completely mold my vision of how the song should go,” he explains. “The drawback is that I don’t get many ideas that are not my own. It was fascinating for me to see the different approaches that everyone used in production.”
No matter who the producers, songwriters or accompanying musicians are on Use Me, Bromberg’s expressive guitar-playing and “rippling Fred Neil-like baritone that … brings warm, reassuring comfort” (Rolling Stone) remain the centerpiece of the CD, diamonds in golden settings.