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David Bromberg: Indefinably delicious

Philly’s gift (sort of) to folk/blues/bluegrass/Celtic brings it all back home.

DAVID BROMBERG is a study in contradictions.

The seasoned musician has a star on the Philadelphia Music Alliance Walk of Fame "right in front of the Academy of Music - even though I left town as an infant," he chortles.

Adding insult to injury: When D.B. decided to relocate East from Chicago in 2002 with his artist/musician wife, Nancy Josephson, they picked Wilmington, Del., as their new home base, rather than Philly, because, um, the mayor (James Baker) was a fan, offered Bromberg a sweetheart deal to be an urban pioneer and later anointed him the city's "Cultural Ambassador."

A contrarian in the best musical sense, the singing/multi-instrument-playing Bromberg is adept at almost any kind of music under the sun - from sassy, horn-scorched New Orleans blues to early rock ballads, nimbly picked bluegrass and Celtic jigs, to self-penned "Old English-style" ballads like "Strongest Man Alive" that "fool even the experts."

All that makes his recent album release, "Only Slightly Mad," come off like the best kind of Mad Hatter's tea party.

Then when Bromberg puts on his other, daytime hat, as a violin broker/restorer, the guy can talk the tony talk with classical musicians, too. "I don't even sell my albums in the violin shop," he said. "It would be too confusing for someone who's thinking of putting out big bucks for an instrument."

Will the real D.B. please stand up?

For better and worse, such eclecticism makes this guy impossible to pigeonhole.

For example: Bromberg puts over down-home, jazzed up laments (like his signature "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair," or the comically testifying, when-hell-freezes-over themed "I'll Take You Back" on the new album) with more vipery vim than most "native" New Orleans musicians would. And that goes double when he's working out with his walloping big band - the troupe Bromberg hauls to the Keswick Theatre, in Glenside, tomorrow night for a show with his special-pick opener, David Johansen (of Buster Poindexter/New York Dolls fame.)

Yet in all the years he's been making music, Bromberg has "never once been invited to play the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival," he shared in a defenses-down moment.

Another case in point: The man's always a big draw at the Philadelphia Folk Festival as main-stage headliner and special "gun for hire" - the sideman role that first got him noticed, picking behind guys like Jerry Jeff Walker and Bob Dylan (then Emmylou Harris, the Eagles, Willie Nelson, Carly Simon and many more.)

But you'll rarely, if ever, see Bromberg lauded in bluegrass, country or folk-music journals. "Sing Out put me on the cover once and I think that was a mistake," he half-joked.

No problem. Bromberg thinks like the late, great Groucho Marx, another comic curmudgeon, that "I don't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member." And agrees that it's "marketing suicide" to spread himself so wide: "If you don't swear full allegiance to one musical camp, you're not fully accepted by any." Still, that's the way he rolls.

Lost and Found

More stubbornly, Bromberg "pretty much" gave up on professional music-making for two decades. At first the excuse was his decision to enter a violin-making school in Chicago, to learn the craft of restoration. Now he admits, "I got burned out on the music business and got too stupid to realize I was. I didn't think I was a musician anymore. Didn't want to drag myself on stage and do a bitter imitation of who and what I loved. So, when I went off to school, I stopped playing, and didn't pick it up again for 22 years."

So what brought the now 68-year-old musician back to the party? "Before I moved to Wilmington, I had lunch a couple times with the mayor, who'd offered me a building on Market Street to rehab. He told me Market used to have live music all up and down it and he missed that. I thought about it.

"The only way I could help would be to have a couple jam sessions in the first floor shop, underneath our living quarters. Some really fine musicians started showing up, some coming from quite a distance. And I started to enjoy just playing with them. Eventually I got my chops back and decided to give it another swing." (Not incidentally, those Bromberg shop jams also jump-started the restoration/conversion of the nearby Queen Theater into World Cafe Live, Wilmington.)

Winning the support of a serious music label - the West Chester, Pa.-based Appleseed Records - "hasn't hurt," Bromberg adds. And he worked with new energy and old attitude on the "Only Slightly Mad" album, recorded by producer pal Larry Campbell at Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock, N.Y. - a set that's won D.B. his best reviews in ages.

"Larry asked me to make another 'everything-goes' Bromberg album," he said. "And this time I was up for the mission. My singing has improved on a number of levels. I have way more power than I had. And to tell the truth, it all opened up after I had three stents put in a couple years ago. The doctors said I had 85 percent blockage in one artery. Now I'm getting a lot more oxygen to my lungs."