Bromberg and Angel Band at Paramount Theater

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This past Saturday night, we went to see David Bromberg and Angel Band (David’s wife’s group) perform at the Paramount Theater in Peekskill, NY. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that David Bromberg is one of my all-time favorite live performers.

In September 2006, I saw him again at BB King in NYC for the first time in over 20 years. That night, we accidentally discovered Angel Band. We had never heard of them, and would have sat through any opening band to hear Bromberg. What a treat it turned out to be that Angel Band was not only his wife’s group, but that David and his band played all of the instruments in support of these three amazing female vocalists.

Ironically, another of my favorite groups (Jazz this time though), Spyro Gyra was playing the same night, just three miles from our house at Tarrytown Music Hall. I didn’t find out about the Spyro Gyra concert until after I had the tickets for the Bromberg concert, so it was too late. Given that we saw Bromberg twice in the past 14 months, I would have gone to see Spyro Gyra had I known about both at the same time.

The Paramount is a gorgeous old theater with very comfortable seats. We were in the ninth row, center orchestra, so we had excellent seats.

We own the one CD that Angel Band has out now, Beautiful Noise, and we like it a lot. They are releasing a new CD early next year, so we were expecting to hear some new material. Sure enough, at least 2/3’s of the show was different than the one we saw at BB King, which was a real treat. They sing so beautifully and powerfully, and the David Bromberg band would enhance any singer’s performance.

The first few songs that they played were awesome. While they took a while to get Nancy Josephson’s (David’s wife) microphone level correct, she was in particularly good voice, and was truly belting out her leads, amazingly. The other two women, Jen Schonwald and Kathleen Weber (their bios are here), are both wonderful as well!

The selection of songs they played in the middle had less oomph (to me), and while I wasn’t bored (at all), I wasn’t as moved or mesmerized either. They finished on a high note though. When they walked off the stage, Lois commented that she couldn’t believe that they didn’t play the song One Voice.

The first time we ever heard that song was Angel Band singing it at BB King in September 2006, and we have listened to it on the Beautiful Noise CD many times. We recently found out that the song was written by one of my new favorite bands, The Wailin’ Jennys, whom I’ve written about twice now, here and here.

Just as Lois was lamenting not hearing it, they came out for an encore, and lo and behold, played One Voice. It was great, but, not as good as the version on the CD, or the one we heard live that first time. I’m not complaining, just ‘splaining. Great, but not awesome.

The one low point in their performance, for me, was the introduction (in the form of a speech) of a new song written by Nancy Josephson. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, and caused me to write a separate blog entry complaining about it. I didn’t want to conflate the great music, with my feelings about the speech, so I separated the two. If you care to hear me rant about my feelings about performers lecturing their audience on politics, feel free to read it here.

After a 15 minute break, the David Bromberg Quartet took the stage. As much as the audience loved Angel Band (us included), it was as obvious at the Paramount as it was a year earlier at BB King, that the overwhelming majority of the crowd came out to see David do his thing. The one real surprise was that they switched bass players between sets (I don’t recall that happening at BB King, though I might just not remember it correctly).

David has a very large body of work to choose from, so you never really know what you’re going to hear when you see him live. At the show, he even said that he doesn’t typically have a set playlist for a given concert, but rather lets the band know in between songs what has tickled his fancy to play next. That’s very cool and likely pretty unusual.

Unfortunately (only for me!), his selection on Saturday bordered on the slightly more boring side to me. He played a few of his very famous songs, and they truly wailed on some of the songs that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as exciting on a CD, but, ultimately, I wasn’t blown away by Bromberg himself.

In fact, while he’s nowhere near over the hill, his fingers don’t quite listen to his mind like they used to. In this post about Kathy Mattea, I wrote about Bill Cooley, and the fact that he was likely the best acoustic guitarist I had ever heard. Right before I made that pronouncement, I described what a genius I thought Bromberg is with a guitar. He still is, just not as consistently perfect as he used to be. He misses notes, or perhaps more accurate, simply doesn’t execute what you can tell he was aiming for. That said, on occasion, he thrills like he used to, and it’s sheer bliss.

Still, Bromberg is one of the most fun (as in entertaining) performers you can imagine. When he plays the guitar, he produces facial expressions (and body contortions) aimed to mimic the style and emotion of what he’s playing on the guitar. It’s awesome. The crowd totally eats it up. It gives his guitar playing a sense of story telling that matches the lyrics of whatever song he’s playing. In other words, even though there are no words, you hear the words as he plays each individual lead.

One last thing about Bromberg’s guitar playing: it’s distinctive. In other words, he’s one of the rare guitarists where you can close your eyes, hear him play, and say “That’s Bromberg”. A few others are Jerry Garcia, Santana, Clapton, etc. They are all playing the same basic instrument, and yet, across hundreds of songs, you can still say instantly which one of them it is.

Playing along with David are the top three people listed on this page, Jeff Wisor, Butch Amiot and Bobby Tangrea. Lois is crazy about Bobby Tangrea as a musician (as am I), and we both love Jeff Wisor as well. Wisor is an amazing fiddler (who also plays the mandolin in a few songs), and Tangrea is an exceptional mandolin and guitar player, who plays the fiddle really well on a few songs as well.

Tangrea is a world-class mandolin player, but he is not nearly as good as Chris Thile (who many people believe is the best in the world), or even Ricky Skaggs (in my opinion), but take nothing away from him, you’ll love every minute if you get to see him. His guitar playing is a little better (to my tastes), but in Saturday’s selection of songs, he spent the vast majority of his time on the mandolin.

The highlight (to both Lois and me) of the Bromberg set was the instrumental number Yankee’s Revenge (from the CD Midnight on the Water). It’s a great song on the CD, but live, man, they just nailed it. In particular, Jeff Wisor was so brilliant on the fiddle and Bromberg made him (and Bobby Tangrea on the mandolin) take double-long solos. Yes, they were that good. The only thing missing was they didn’t use a picolo (or some sort of flute) live, which is done really well on the CD version.

Anyway, they came out for two (or three?) encores, with Angel Band as well, though Angel Band just sang very soft background, and was almost superfluous during the encores.

All-in-all, we had a great time. That said, while I’d see him/them again, I can tell already that I won’t be as anxious to catch him in the future as I was these past three times. That’s partly because of the tiresomeness of the political speeches, partly because his selection of songs can be a little too varied, and because as great as he still can be, he’s not as flawless as he used to be.

So, here comes the obligatory Girlyman mention. To try and pretend that it’s even slightly in context, I’ll simply say that I (as of this moment in time) can’t imagine not being excited to catch Girlyman in a live show! 🙂 I used to feel that way about Bromberg…

In fact, it occurs to me what the problem was (for me only!) with this performance at the Paramount, vs the Girlyman performance at both Highline Ballroom and Joe’s Pub:

At both Girlyman concerts (as with past Bromberg shows), I was so totally immersed in the music, that it was truly a zen-like experience. In Saturday’s show, I was aware of my surroundings, the people around me, etc. It was a great concert, but it wasn’t a magical, mystical journey like a Girlyman show is.