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In Fine Fiddle

Abandoning band tours and some renown, Bromberg now owns a violin store in Wilmington, Del., and jams with local musicians.
Abandoning band tours and some renown, Bromberg now owns a violin store in Wilmington, Del., and jams with local musicians. "It has given me back my chops," he says. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

And somehow, where he least expected to find it, Bromberg rediscovered his passion for playing guitar.

How David Bromberg found his way to Wilmington is the story of a city desperate to gin up a nightlife and lure people to a downtown that largely dies at 5 p.m. Yet it's also about a traveling minstrel's three-decade metamorphosis, in which he yanked down the curtain on a celebrated act and scripted a new encore.

Tomorrow Bromberg will be at the Library of Congress to speak on the historic significance of that ever-under-appreciated musical instrument, the American-made violin. He owns nearly 250, some dating back more than 100 years. It is the largest such collection, and they are displayed in cabinets from one end of his loftlike living room to the other.

"My wife calls it the wallpaper," he says.

At 60, Bromberg retains the playful glint that infused his music. He loves showing off his museum-like shop, David Bromberg Fine Violins, including the metal-lined, fire-resistant vault where he stores more than $1 million in string instruments.

Looking for a $100,000 antique French bow? He's got two, along with 17th- and 18th-century Italian-made violins, and the 80-year-old Philadelphia-made cello that just arrived from Michigan, care of UPS. The owner wants five figures for it.

"Great varnish!" Bromberg gushes as he rips open the package. He's in the rear workshop, which he shares with two craftsmen who make and repair violins, cellos and bows.

If asked, he's happy to delve into the old days: how, as a teenager, he asked the Rev. Gary Davis, the legendary blind bluesman, to give him guitar lessons in exchange for leading him around New York; how he traveled in 1969 to Woodstock to perform at the historic concert, and wound up in a tent jamming for hours with the Dead's Jerry Garcia; how he went to a Thanksgiving dinner in Jersey and ended up writing a song with fellow guest George Harrison before the turkey was served ("The Holdup").

Just don't press Bromberg on dates or places or any other minutiae that might lend chronological order to his life.

"I'm sorry," he says, shrugging. "Too many drugs."

There were more than a few smoke-filled nights in those years when he and his band zigzagged the country, a traveling jukebox spitting out Chicago blues, Texas waltzes, country, Dixieland, rock and folk. Then there were his own tunes, often humorous meditations on carnival dancers, gamblers, cruel lovers, betrayal and revenge.

Music critics liked to describe his appearance: gangly and whiskered, with long, thick hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Some flayed his often nasal, tremulous, straight-from-New York vocal style. "Wretched" was the way one put it.

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