The fearless leaders of The Bridge have traveled an enormous distance to get where they are; all the way from living off-the-grid on a remote Hawaiian farm—in Kenny Liner's case—and chafing in the buttoned-down corporate world—in Cris Jacobs'—to making a formidable album that's fed by hometown roots and laced with wanderlust. It's called National Bohemian, a nod to both the Baltimore-based sextet's beloved local brew and their creatively rewarding but often unglamorous hard-touring lifestyle. It's also the work of a dexterous band of players to be reckoned with. And it's available February 1, 2011 on Woodberry Records/Thirty Tigers.
From the eleven new, original tracks, this much is clear: Jacobs (vocals and guitar), Liner (mandolin and beatboxing), Dave Markowitz (bass and vocals), Patrick Rainey (saxophone), Mike Gambone (drums) and Mark Brown (keyboards) —otherwise known as The Bridge—have come into their own, covering unbounded musical territory with no shortage of verve and striking a rare balance between high-quality songs and sharp instrumental interplay. They have the tools to see their expansive musical vision through, starting with the unorthodox nature of their lineup: string band elements powered by a plugged-in R&B- and roots rock-ready rhythm section, heated by keyboard and horn and, here and there, seasoned with syncopated beatboxing.
No less important is the fact that there are two distinct songwriting voices at the heart of the group—Liner's and Jacobs'. Says Steve Berlin, the forward-thinking Los Lobos multi-instrumentalist and producer who the band asked to helm the new project, "You get the two poles of Kenny and Cris being very different songwriters. Then you get also the wonderful places where they meet and interact and each affects the other. So you really get the nice Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards dichotomy."
Liner and Jacobs, indeed, represent an energizing contrast in personalities on the order of those legendary rock 'n' roll duos. Liner played drums as a youth before getting booted from high school and joining up with a traveling band of Deadheads—a decision that may or may not have been helped along by experimentin in his halcyon days with LSD. "I had no shoes and no money and just hustled my way around the country learning how to get by," he says nonchalantly, acting like it's no big deal to live the life of a hippie hobo at age 15. In college, he traded his drum-kit for acoustic music's answer to the snare drum—mandolin—then, upon being kicked out of school a final time, accepted a friend's invitation to escape civilization and work on an organic farm in Maui. By the time family ties drew him back to Maryland, his mandolin skills were formidable, thanks to daily seaside picking sessions.
Jacobs, on the other hand, caught the guitar-playing bug at 16, and managed to complete a business degree at UMass while also putting in untold hours of practice on his six-string. "I spent a few months in Spain during that time, where I started to write songs," he recalls. "But I think everyone still thought I was going to be a lawyer or a stockbroker or something like that." For a while it looked like they were right. After college, he landed a secure, respectable white-collar job in finance. But as fate would have it, he and Liner, an old friend, reconnected at a bluegrass house concert and took to jamming regularly. Inspired by the music he and Liner were creating together, Jacobs marched straight into the office and quit; he had no plan, no safety net, only a burning desire to play.
The moment Jacobs and Liner began venturing out to play their first Bridge gigs with a revolving cast of musicians in tow, their wide-ranging sensibilities found an appreciative audience. And that audience multiplied as they solidified a band lineup with just the right chemistry—first adding Markowitz, Rainey and Gambone and, finally, Brown—built a ton of buzz through a weekly residency at the Baltimore rock club the 8×10 (by the end of a year they were drawing crowds of 1000+ in their hometown, no small feat for any band), delivered crowd-pleasing sets at Bonnaroo, All Good, Wakarusa and a host of other sizable, genre-blending festivals, shared the stage with the likes of Little Feat, Derek Trucks, Phish's Mike Gordon and Trombone Shorty and released a pair of well-regarded albums on Hyena Records.
National Bohemian, though, reveals a band operating at an entirely elevated level. The album marks the first time the members have brought in an outside producer. And they made an inspired choice by turning to Berlin, an artist himself who knows a thing or two about stand-out in-studio eclecticism. He lent his ear to every part of the process, beginning with selecting the 11 best songs among the 30 Jacobs and Liner had written and challenging all the players to expand their horizons with their arrangements.
The band holed up for ten days with Berlin and engineer Jeff Stuart Saltzman in Portland's Jackpot! Recording Studio, known as a destination for indie rock royalty like R. E.M., Sonic Youth and The Decemberists. There, each stationed in a separate room—and, since they ran out of rooms before band members, the front lounge and bathroom were even put to use—they delivered live, locked-in, one-of-a-kind performances.
"That moment, when you're able to take all of your resources as a band and all the colors in your palette and all the arrows in your proverbial quiver and use them all, that's a really powerful moment," Berlin says. "My secret mission was to explore the outer reaches of what they're capable of. To their great credit, they came through and did everything I asked for, and then some."
Where The Bridge's self-titled 2007 album leaned toward jazz-tinged funk and rock and its follow-up, Blind Man's Hill, toward country-blues, the new album distills the best of both and expands in several new directions besides.
"Sanctuary" and "Big Wheel" are both knee-deep in humid southern rock grooves, punctuated by angular licks that break free from straight-ahead time signatures (a suggestion of Berlin's that jazz-schooled Gambone and the rest of the band pull off with style) ; "Rosie" is high-octane boogie rock; and "Geraldine" is a funky, playful update of New Orleans second line (another Berlin idea). "Moonlight Mission"—a folk murder ballad of Liner's—gets an Afro-Cuban touch, while the bluesy singer-songwriter number "Dirt on My Hands" relies on nothing but spare fingerstyle guitar and mandolin. Before working with Berlin, the band had never even attempted a slow-burning number like Jacobs' country-soul and blues ballads "Long Way to Climb" and "Stranger." But both turn out to be fine, dramatic moments.
"Steve really opened up the range of things that Kenny or I may have wanted to express but, for whatever reason, didn't think that it matched up with the identity of The Bridge," Jacobs reflects.
Echoes Liner, "He's got a million ideas. On our other albums Cris would just show up and play guitar through his amp. But on this album Steve's got twenty amps to choose from, and twenty guitars to choose from."
And Berlin's respect for the band's abilities says plenty: "Being able to move and change and circle back, not a lot of people can do that, at least authoritatively. And I found that The Bridge guys were able to do that very authoritatively."
But, then, the six guys in The Bridge are sojourners and risk-takers in life and in music. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that they're more than living up to their name.
Cris Jacobs – Guitar/Vocals
Kenny Liner – Mandolin/Vocal Percussion
Dave Markowitz – Bass/Vocals
Patrick Rainey – Sax
Mike Gambone – Drums
Mark Brown – Keys