Graded on a Curve:
David Bromberg,
Wanted Dead or Alive

About four score and seven years ago, when Herbert Hoover was still president and every decent automobile came complete with running boards for bootleggers to stand on while firing their tommy guns at jolly coppers, I owned a David Bromberg LP. I don’t remember what it was called, and have no idea what became of it, but I liked it, although I can’t say it rocked my world. Bromberg is as eclectic as they come, and in addition to about 78 other kinds of music plays the sort of blues I’ve never much liked. But he can pull it off because he has a sense of humor, and likes to mix things up on his LPs, throwing in odd little songs of genius, so you never get the feeling you’re in the presence of that horror of horrors, a white blues guy.

Anyway, the album disappeared—along with about 3,000 other LPs—during my journey through life, snagged by my first ex-wife or given away or abandoned like an unwanted dog along the highway. Listening to Bromberg again, I’m reminded of what I liked about him in the first place—he won’t blow your socks off, but he plays real good and sounds just as good while stoned and in general is as comfortable as an old pair of house slippers, the ones with the blood spatter on them from the time you killed the drifter who broke into your kitchen.

Wanted Dead or Alive is probably his most intriguing LP, if only because he was accompanied on Side One by four members of the Grateful Dead, namely Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Keith Godchaux. Hence the Dead in the title. (Meanwhile Side Two was recorded live, hence the Alive in the title.) Which if nothing else should make it a must-own for Deadheads everywhere, and makes this review a public service and yours truly a Paul Revere riding through town on horseback alerting the populace to a true Dead oddity.

From opener “The Holdup—Dead Version” (the title differentiates this take from the one Bromberg co-wrote and recorded with George Harrison) to closer “The New Lee Highway Blues,” the album’s title also serves another purpose—namely to signify that this here LP is freighted with bad men and bad women doing bad things that occasionally have bad results (see Bromberg’s cover of George Brooks’ “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair”). “The Holdup” is a Mexicali romp, complete with mariachi horns and female backing vocals, to say nothing of lots of gunfire, barking dogs, and mooing at the end. And Bromberg (whose voice reminds me of John Darnielle of Mountain Goats) delivers on the great lyrics (“Tax time is coming/Give alms to the poor/Or I’ll put a bullet through your best liver/Wealth is disease/And I am the cure”).

“Somebody Else’s Blues” features a nice horn section, and one delectable electric guitar solo (by Garcia, I’m assuming) that is followed immediately by an equally good acoustic solo. Meanwhile Keith Godchaux tickles the ivories and, while I don’t generally like slow blues, the song’s conceit—Bromberg has everything he could possibly want but still feels the blues, ergo they must be somebody else’s—is smarter than that of your average blues. I remember the furious romp “Danger Man” from years ago; on it Bromberg, amidst a backdrop of cool percussion, violin, and acoustic guitar that reminds me somewhat of the Dead’s “Cumberland Blues,” sings about how dangerous he is (“No mirrors around my house/Cuz I even scare myself”). Why he even has a dangerous nose. Meanwhile the female backing singers invite him to come up and see them sometime, while horns come in and out and this one’s a sure fire winner, no shit.

“The Main Street Moan” is a mid-tempo blues that opens with a characteristic Garcia guitar riff, features lots of stringed instruments, and like “Somebody Else’s Blues” somehow overcomes my lack of passion for the blues idiom. I think it’s the injection of folk into the equation that saves them, that and The Grateful Dead’s easy going aesthetic. There are a couple of laid-back solos, by Garcia I think, that justify the whole tune, while Bromberg sounds just as relaxed.

“Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair” is an acoustic blues number about a guy who cold-bloodedly killed his woman and doesn’t want to spend the duration of his life behind bars. It boasts quiet verses and big choruses with an excellent arrangement of Dixieland horns. The beat is big, and it’s like listening to a return to the big band era at points, and the applause at the end surely demonstrates that the audience liked it. “Statesboro Blues/Church Bell Blues” works because it’s taken at such a slow pace, and because it’s just Bromberg, with his great phrasing and an acoustic guitar. I have never liked “Statesboro Blues” but when he suddenly rushes his lyrics in an outpouring of words he wins me over, especially when he demands the wig he gave his lover back. “Church Bell Blues” is embedded in “Statesboro Blues,” and is more of the same, Bromberg’s vocal phrasing impeccable, alternating slow vocals with sudden bursts of speed.

As for his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Wallflower,” it has hillbilly panache, and if it isn’t as good as the version on Doug Sahm and Band’s 1973 LP it’s only because (1) I don’t think the horns work and (2) Bromberg’s version lacks the slapdash first-take feel of the Sahm version. But it’s still pure pleasure, which is more than I can say for Bromberg’s cover of “Kansas City,” which also suffers from horn overload and is a song I could never tolerate to begin with. Still, its innumerable versions have brought please to innumerable people, and no one can accuse it of lacking spunk; the band attacks it with everything it has. So take my lack of enthusiasm with a grain of salt, although I do feel obligated to say that I’ve been to Kansas City and it’s no great shakes.

“The New Lee Highway Blues” is the album’s best track, with an irresistible melody, great propulsion, and lyrics about a couple—presumably on the run from the law—suffering the trials and tribulations of life on the road (“It was a stinking southern trip to southern hell/Eating carbonated crap/Churning up inside/Gas soaked service station johns/And then we’d ride”). Passing “seamy movie houses all closed down” on their journey from nowhere to no place, the couple finally goes out not in a Bonnie and Clyde rain of bullets, but in a wonderful hoedown of banjo and fiddle, which is less glamorous I guess, but much more joyful to the ears.

David Bromberg is a great synthesizer, mixing and matching musical genres and charming audiences with his great stories (listen to his top-notch take on “Mr. Bojangles; it’s sheer genius) while playing masterfully on a whole bunch of instruments. Why, he can, no shit, even play lead and rhythm guitar at the same time. His dabbling in numerous musical genres has probably not helped his career in the long run—everybody prefers an artist they can pin down to a mercurial shape-shifter—but over the years he’s put out lots of cool LPs while contributing to the albums of artists as varied as the poet Ed Sanders, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, Rick Derringer, Link Wray, Ringo Starr, and the Eagles, to name just a few.

Man, do I wish I could remember the name of the LP I owned way back when. Maybe someday it will show up at my door, and we’ll have a joyous reunion, after which I’ll put it on the record player and put on my blood-spattered carpet slippers, and enjoy me some cool and laid-back music.


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