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The David Bromberg Big Band, Mike + Ruthy

by B.A. Nilsson on November 21, 2012


As David Bromberg and his band erupted into his signature original “Sharon” for the umpteenth time, as I felt the joy of seeing and hearing this live, for my own somethingth time, I realized that I was wallowing in the same happy reaction I get when witnessing a bang-up performance of, say, Beethoven’s Seventh. I know it all too well, I have recordings galore at home, yet something magical continues to happen in that confluence of real-time happening and audience presence. By virtue of being in the house, emanating pleasure, we coax a better performance out of the band.

And I’m here to tell the abundance of cell-phone wielding recordists that no crude video comes even close to the live experience. You’ll never be able to revisit it with as much excitement again, so you might as well keep the fucking things in your pockets. (But you won’t. You’re frightened of primary experiences. You might as well be having sex by mail.)

Too often I relegate the opening act to the final paragraphs of a piece like this, so let me reverse that and praise Mike + Ruthy for an unexpectedly good performance. Unexpectedly only insofar as I haven’t heard them before, but entirely to be expected considering Ruthy’s Ungar-family pedigree and Mike Merenda’s songwriting skill. Add to that their instrumental proficiency—she played banjolele, guitar and violin; he’s equally splendid on banjo and guitar—and vocal impressiveness both solo and in harmony, mix in a Guthrie-centric tradition that harkens back to the early 20th century, and the recipe is looking good.

Then Bromberg came out and killed it with one of his favorite openers, Charlie Poole’s “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” morphing it into fiddle tunes to show off the young and horribly talented Nate Grower, who switched instruments at the end of the number to join Bromberg and Mark Cosgrove in a fast-picking mandolin trio.

With blues numbers at the heart of the set, the seven-piece ensemble gave plenty of solo time to its members. Peter Ecklund took his cornet to that amazingly affecting place he always finds in “Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning,” which also inspired reedman John Payne to visit his clarinet’s chalumeau register. A couple of tunes later, he switched to flute and Ecklund picked up his fluegelhorn for the melancholy Bromberg original “Diamond Lil.” Bassist (and Albany resident) Butch Amiot has been with band for over 30 years and, while he rarely grabs any spotlight, does a virtuoso job of sculpting the numbers. While drummer Josh Kanusky is comparatively new, he brings an excellent rhythmic vocabulary to the group.

“Sometimes I go a whole concert and forget to play any of my songs,” Bromberg said, but we also got “If You Don’t Want Me, Baby,” “Watch Baby Fall,” “Tongue” and, of course, “Sharon”—an impressive panoply of numbers running a gamut of styles, sporting well-crafted lyrics and sounding as if they’re simply part of the world’s musical fabric.

Buell Kazee’s “Roll On, John” has become Bromberg’s standard final encore, performed acoustically by the quartet with Payne and Cosgrove joining on the harmony vocal and Grower adding fiddle obbligato. If the concert had up until then been drawing us back to a time when the blues were young, this gorgeous little number clinched it.