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David Bromberg: The return of a rock 'n' roll Zelig

Correspondent

David Bromberg is the Zelig of ’60s and ’70s rock ’n’ roll. He played guitar on Jerry Jeff Walker’s original version of “Mr. Bojangles.” He’s credited on two Bob Dylan albums (“Self-Portrait” and “New Morning”), worked with two Beatles (George and Ringo), performed at the Isle of Wight rock fest on a bill that included Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, and has been a go-to guy for roots-music giants such as John Prine and Kris Kristofferson.

Bromberg’s own recordings, starting with his self-titled 1971 debut, were praised by some and panned by others, but by the 1980s, he was looking for an exit. He became an expert in the field of authenticating violins and opened a shop in Wilmington, Del., maintaining a studio exile from 1990 to 2007. Since then, Bromberg’s made up for lost time, recording four albums that reveal undiminished chops and passion. His latest, “The Blues, the Whole Blues and Nothing but the Blues,” is a rollicking affair that draws from Delta blues and Memphis soul, with some old-timey string-band flavors, as well. Bromberg is currently touring with his band, and will be playing Thursday, March 16 at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton.

A couple of tracks on the new album — a gorgeous read of the murder ballad “Delia” and a moving version of Ray Charles’ “Fool for You” — showcase the acoustic fingerpicking style that Bromberg learned from the Rev. Gary Davis, a blind ragtime-guitar virtuoso. A student at Columbia University in the early ’60s, Bromberg took lessons from Davis, whom he met in Greenwich Village, and adopted his two-finger style.

“When I started working with him, I actually was using three fingers,” the 71-year-old guitarist says, speaking by phone from his violin shop after closing time on a weekday in February. “I then realized that the syncopations that the Reverend used to get had much to do with the way your hand would work when you were only using [thumb and forefinger].”

Bromberg opened shows for another influential blues figure, Mississippi John Hurt, with whom he would sit and pick guitars backstage. Hurt invited Bromberg to accompany him at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, but Bromberg declined. “I realized that nobody would have wanted to hear me playing with him at that point,” he explains.

Singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker also recognized Bromberg’s talents early on. As Bromberg recently told Marc Maron on his “WTF” podcast, he was in the studio while Walker was recording his 1968 album, “Mr. Bojangles.” The lead guitarist on the session couldn’t quite get the right feel on the title track, so Walker asked Bromberg to give it a go, and the rest is history. He doesn’t begrudge the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s pop success with the song just a few years later.

“They’re friends of mine, and I was happy for them,” he says. “I remember meeting them when Jerry Jeff and I were in Colorado, staying in the same hotel. And we sat around and played the tune, and other tunes, and then years later, they came out with that recording.”

With all the iconic artists with whom Bromberg has worked, he says he never became starstruck. Sure, Dylan and the Beatles were enormous influences, but he knew better than to act like a fawning fanboy around them. Bromberg met Harrison at a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by his manager. The pair bonded while passing a cheap, gut-string guitar back and forth. They ended up writing a song together, “The Holdup,” which appeared on Bromberg’s debut album.

Bromberg’s star rose and fell, but he voices no regret in pursuing another profession. “I was fascinated with how someone could look at a violin and tell you when and where the instrument was made, and sometimes by who,” he says.

Bromberg’s 2007 comeback recording, “Try Me One More Time,” is something of an outlier, presenting him on a sparkling, solo-acoustic set of country blues. Subsequent releases have been more in keeping with the eclectic nature of his previous recordings, although “The Blues, the Whole Blues and Nothing but the Blues” lives up to its title, earning space on the blues charts since its release late last year. “My earlier records were just amalgams of everything I liked,” he reflects. “It was commercial suicide.”

A photo on the back of the album shows Bromberg cradling his weathered 1958 Fender Esquire. He admits that there’s magic in older instruments, maybe something to do with the age of the wood. This guitar is so precious to him that he no longer travels with it. “I’ve been using my main guitar for so long, and it has such a unique sound, that I kinda suspect that if I ever lose it, my career is over,” he says. “That guitar makes me sound the way I sound. Or we’ve kind of grown together, to be a little more accurate. That’s the one that will be buried with me.”

A wry sensibility permeates much of Bromberg’s music. While he’s capable of generating deep emotion, he’s also drawn to the humor embedded in so many blues songs, something that’s long shaped his approach.

“One of the biggest things that has always attracted me to blues is the irony of the lyrics,” he says. “Sometimes, the irony is humorous, sometimes not. I take music seriously, but I don’t take myself that seriously. So that’s where that comes from.”

The David Bromberg Quintet will perform 8 p.m. Thursday, March 16, at the Funky Biscuit, 303 S.E. Mizner Blvd., in Boca Raton. Tickets cost $40-$65, $45 at the door. Call 561-395-2929 or go to FunkyBiscuit.com.

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