In a new documentary about Wilmington musician David Bromberg, the 67-year-old opens up about why it’s hard for him to take a compliment. In a business where success translates into public praise, Bromberg has never let flattery affect him.
He reveals in the film that as a child, he feared his strict parents, especially his physically abusive father, Norbert, who immigrated from Austria.
“I learned to set up a wall between compliments and myself because they could be followed by a slap,” Bromberg says in the 73-minute film “David Bromberg: Unsung Treasure,” which will be screened at 7:30 tonight at World Cafe Live at the Queen. (Tickets are $20 and benefit Light Up the Queen Foundation.)
Bromberg, director Beth Toni Kruvant and syndicated “World Cafe” host David Dye will be on hand with Dye leading a question-and-answer session following the film. While Bromberg performed a few songs at the film’s world premiere last week in Woodstock, N.Y., he is not expected to perform tonight, according to his staff.
The film shows Bromberg’s rise as a sought-after musical sideman to a star in his own right before he burned out on the road and pulled the plug on his career in 1980.
His musical revival and first Grammy nomination in 2008 – sparked by his informal jam sessions on Market Street when he moved to Wilmington in 2002 – are the film’s centerpiece. Cameras follow him through Wilmington as he goes to church with Mayor James Baker in one scene and, in another, captures the recording of his latest album, “Use Me.” Cameras roll in the studio as Bromberg records and chats with guest musicians like Dr. John, Vince Gill and Keb’ Mo’.
His nearly undefinable mix of folk, blues and rock has lured artists like Bob Dylan, George Harrison and the Grateful Dead into the studio to play on his albums.
“He is a really special player,” Dye says. “I find it remarkable that he’s had this resurgence.”
The most engaging part of the film is not necessarily the music, but when Bromberg speaks of his childhood, personal life and marriage to artist/musician Nancy Josephson, giving a glimpse of the man behind the beard.
After shutting down musically in 1980, Bromberg says he fell into a depression and watched a lot of television after all he knew was suddenly gone.
“I was going through a huge personality crisis because my whole self-identification was as a musician and I decided I wasn’t a musician,” he says. “It was a pretty tough time.”
It was his love of making, restoring and selling violins – his second career – that pulled him out of his funk and ultimately led him to Wilmington, where his violin shop stands at the corner of 6th and Market streets, home of the “largest American violin collection in the world.”
“It changed my life,” he says of his life’s second act.
Kruvant says she became interested in making the film when she saw Bromberg perform at one of Levon Helm’s midnight rambles in Woodstock around the time of his acoustic comeback, “Try Me One More Time,” released in 2007.
“I wondered where he had been all these years, and if I wanted to know, I’m assuming there’s an audience out there who wants to know,” she says of the documentary, which began filming in 2010 at Bromberg’s Big Noise in the Neighborhood music festival in Wilmington.
In “Unsung Hero,” we learn Bromberg met his wife at his first headlining concert outside of New York when Josephson was playing stand-up bass in the 1970s bluegrass band Buffalo Gals.
She eventually moved out to California to be with him and her band opened several shows for him, including at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
We also learn more about Bromberg’s relationship with his father, who was a psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
It’s a profession Bromberg later learned his father chose so he could try and figure out his own family, who were physically abusive to him growing up.
“He became a psychiatrist to figure out how a monster like his mother could have lived,” Bromberg says in the film.
Bromberg says his father was not happy with him becoming an entertainer after he dropped out of Columbia University to focus on music.
Bromberg discovered one of the main reasons for this opposition only at the end of his father’s life; Norbert died in 1988 at 81.
“It turns out that almost his entire family were entertainers of the Yiddish theater,” he says. “I didn’t find that out until he was dying.”