The Bridge: Fire & Ice

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By: Tim Newby

The Bridge
Somewhere out there is an old cassette tape, and scribbled across the label is the simple title “Fire & Ice.” It was recorded on an old boom box, the kind where you have to push play and record at the same time. On that tape are the seeds of what would eventually become The Bridge. If Del McCoury went psychedelic and then hitched a ride with Stevie Ray Vaughn to New Orleans, the music they’d write together would be something like the sound of The Bridge. But first, there was an old cassette tape recorded on a cold, snowy afternoon in a small town just outside of Baltimore by two young musicians, Cris Jacobs (guitar) and Kenny Liner (mandolin/beatbox), who had recently begun playing together though they’d been friends for much longer.

The first time Jacobs remembers seeing Liner was during a basketball game when he was eleven or twelve, “I remember some kid flipping out doing headstands on the sideline running around like a monkey.” The kid turned out to be a teammate’s younger brother. The two became friends later that summer at camp, and soon found their friendship cemented over a shared love of music like the Grateful Dead. While in high school, Jacobs formed a band with some friends and they would occasionally let Liner, with his big, bushy afro and his bongos hanging around his neck, sit-in for a couple of songs. When asked by Liner if they let him sit-in because they liked what he played or because they wanted to make him happy, Jacobs pauses for a second before confessing, “It was probably only because we liked you.”

After high school they drifted apart for a few years as Liner escaped to Hawaii and Jacobs attended the University of Massachusetts. It was during this time that Jacobs began to, “dig deeply into music; practicing and learning and getting involved with all kinds of different styles and groups.” The two eventually reunited in the summer of 2001, after both had moved back to the Baltimore area and Jacobs happened to stop by the supermarket where Liner was working. After briefly catching up, they realized that they were both headed to the same show that night, a house party where bluegrass guitarist David Grier was playing. Grier was one of Jacobs’ favorite guitarists at the time and Liner had just recently discovered him as he’d just begun to play the mandolin. The two fledgling musicians, sparked by the show went back to Liner’s house afterwards and “picked some tunes.” They can’t quite remember the first song they ever played together that night but it was either “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which Liner says they used to play all the time, or some other easy bluegrass song they both knew. After this first late night session the two began to play together on a regular basis, mostly instigated by Liner calling Jacobs asking him, “You want to pick?” The duo eventually began to develop a repertoire of songs (Bob Marley’s “Small Axe,” bluegrass standards, and a few Jacobs originals) that they could play, usually at open-mic nights or at parties for friends.

Jacobs & Liner
Despite the small amount of success and notoriety they began to gain around Baltimore, Jacobs was still unsure about his musical future. “After graduation I moved back to Baltimore and I wasn’t sure if I was going to settle down here or not. I knew I was going to do something with music, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be in Baltimore,” says Jacobs. Around the same time, the bassist from Jacobs’ high school band came home from college and was looking to start a band. Jacobs was hesitant to commit, explaining, “To be honest, it just wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. It was never not fun, it just didn’t seem like what I thought my band would be.” All of these contradictory feelings came together to form a perfect storm of events that culminated on a cold snowy afternoon.

Who knows why that afternoon was different than any other time the two came together to pick, perhaps it was the surroundings. “We were in this sun-room, with stone floors. We had a fire going, and there was snow everywhere outside. It was beautiful,” Liner says. Perhaps it was just the right amount of herbal supplement the two musicians stoked themselves up on before they played. Perhaps it was the idea that had been floating around in Liner’s head – to combine the beatbox sound he loved so much over the top of a new line he’d been working out on his mandolin. Perhaps it was the way Jacobs latched onto Liner’s idea so quickly with an inspired bluegrass riff of his own. Whatever the reason, two young musicians recorded a tape on that cold afternoon that they jokingly called “Fire & Ice” which is the genesis of The Bridge. The simple idea Liner had that Jacobs latched onto grew into “Pakalolo,” the first full song they ever wrote together, which is still a staple of their live sets.

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I was still very immature in my musicianship, and Cris was so much better than me. But, for some reason, and even still to this day, he can bring out things in me musically that are normally above what I can do. I realized what we had on that day because it was the first time I had ever closed my eyes when playing and just listened and tried to do what I heard as opposed to trying to play stuff I had practiced.

-Kenny Liner on the birth of The Bridge

 

Besides being the foundation for what The Bridge would become musically, it also eased some of the conflicting feelings the pair had. For Liner it was a revelation about his potential as a musician. “I was still very immature in my musicianship, and Cris was so much better than me,” he says. “But, for some reason, and even still to this day, he can bring out things in me musically that are normally above what I can do. I realized what we had on that day because it was the first time I had ever closed my eyes when playing and just listened and tried to do what I heard as opposed to trying to play stuff I had practiced.”

Kenny Liner – The Bridge
Despite having played with Liner for sometime, the session helped Jacobs alleviate some of the uncertainty he felt concerning the band. “It was a pretty special day, we both definitely felt it. I remember listening back to the tape and thinking ‘hmmm, we really got something here.’ As I listened back to ‘Pakalolo,’ I was thinking how I wanted to do other things that sounded like that. That’s when I finally had the vision and thought maybe we actually have something here.”

Having found their musical direction, they added the bass player from Jacobs’ high school band and a drummer from amongst their musical friends and played their first show in the fall of 2002 to a packed house at Palomas (a now defunct club in Baltimore). The show was packed, mostly due to the efforts of Liner, who rented out the club and sound guy for $300 and then “made it a free show and advertised the fuck out of it.” The first song the band, recently christened The Bridge, ever played live together was a cover of “Dancing in the Streets,” which they describe as being a “bad-ass version of the song” with Jacobs on dobro and Liner beatboxing.

While Liner poured everything he had into promoting the band, Jacobs still expressed some hesitation. “We did a couple of more shows at Palomas, and someone came up to me and was like, ‘I heard about your band.’ And I was like, ‘I have a band?'”

Liner estimates that he went to almost every show in the Baltimore area for two years, passing out flyers and promoting the band. For those with a long enough memory they can remember Liner, with Jacobs joining him occasionally, playing impromptu acoustic sets outside gigs.

Dave Markowitz – The Bridge
One of those folks who remembers the two playing on the streets was another young musician who had recently begun to discover his true musical path, too. Dave Markowitz began playing guitar when he was thirteen and soon after joined a band with his friends. The band, Black Eyed Susan, is still around to this day and remains close with The Bridge, sharing the stage whenever their paths cross. Despite playing guitar with Black Eyed Susan, Markowitz had been searching for a different sound and had begun to find it playing bass. He says, “It felt more like my place musically. It was more what I was hearing and feeling.”

Markowitz grew up in a neighboring town to Jacobs and Liner, and despite being a few years younger shared some of the same social circle since Markowitz’s friends worked at the same health food store as Liner. He was also going to Bridge shows, and was “really, really into their music.” He eventually heard through mutual friends that The Bridge was looking for a new bass player. After thinking it over, he decided to make the move and joined the band on Thanksgiving of 2004. He played his first show with the band a month later on New Year’s Eve, joining them for the final song of the night, a cover of Derek and the Dominos’ “Keep on Growing” that Jacobs calls pretty symbolic. Markowitz agrees, “The past two years and nine months have been great. Nothing but steady growth for the band.”

As Jacobs, Liner and Markowitz developed their musical connection they also went through a Spinal Tap like procession of drummers after their original drummer decided to leave shortly before an eight week summer residency at The 8X10 (at the time called the Funk Box) in Baltimore in 2005. The band decided to use a revolving cast of drummers until they found a permanent replacement. While many good friends and musicians kept time for that summer none was able to take over on a permanent basis.

Mike Gambone – The Bridge
Drummer Mike Gambone, who had recently graduated from Towson University where he studied music, was busy playing in a variety of bands including a jazz group called Derivative. Gambone was vaguely aware of The Bridge and their need for a drummer. “I had heard of The Bridge from this guy in an acoustic rock group I played in who would get like one gig a month. I had seen their flyers around, but had never actually heard the band, but I knew they played a lot,” says Gambone. A few months later during set break at a Derivative show, the sound guy started playing a CD of a Bridge live show that Gambone thought was “bad-ass. They were just killing it.” He found out from the sound guy (who also did sound for The Bridge) that it was a show he had recorded the previous week. Gambone inquired about their drummer situation and found out they were still looking for a permanent replacement. He decided to see if he could set up an audition.

With a CD that he picked up at one of their residency shows, Gambone set about familiarizing himself with their music. “I went home and listened to the CD and listened to a bunch of live stuff,” Gambone explains. “I busted my ass to get familiar with these tunes. I even wrote out charts for them. When we got together for my audition I was pretty ready for it.” Gambone joined the band shortly after, and played his first show in the fall of ’05 at the University of Maine, opening up his tenure with The Bridge on longtime fan-favorite “Super Funk.”

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It is cool that the band came out of moments like that as opposed to being music students who had a specific plan or goal to start a particular kind of band. It is cool to think back and see how this all came out of us having a good time with each other.

-Kenny Liner

 
Photo of Kenny Liner

Drums weren’t the only position that saw turnover in the early days of the band. The band’s saxophone player, who had been commuting to Baltimore from New York City for shows and practices, was unable to give the band the commitment they needed. So, they were soon on the lookout for a new horn man. The band looked to their many musician friends for suggestions and received a strong recommendation for a sax player who recently graduated from college and had played in a number of wide-ranging bands that might be a great fit for The Bridge.

Patrick Rainey by Sam Friedman
Patrick Rainey had recently graduated from Salisbury University where he’d been in a variety of bands playing everything from funk to jazz to reggae. This diverse background would eventually serve him well as he began to tackle The Bridge’s extensive, genre-crossing songbook. Rainey was friends with a number of musicians from the Baltimore area, including Blake Mobley, who plays keyboards in another local Baltimore band, Basshound. Mobley first introduced Rainey to The Bridge’s sound, taking him to a Thanksgiving show in 2005. Rainey recalls that despite having a bit much to drink and finding the rest of the night a blur, he does recall being impressed with the band. Introductions were eventually made, with the band deciding that Rainey was the man to fill their vacancy. Jacobs says, “Patrick was really the only serious candidate we considered.” Rainey remembers, “They called me up on my birthday, and the next day I sat in with them at a show in Philadelphia, and I have been with them every gig since then.”

It was a slow process to get Rainey up to speed. “I have been in [the band] over a year now, and there was a definite transition process. At first I would only sit in for a couple of songs a night. They had so much material that it has literally taken me up until now where I am comfortable” explains Rainey. “It is so much easier now that I can focus on just playing and actually devote time to writing some new music.”

With the addition of Rainey solidifying of The Bridge’s lineup, the band was able to focus on their music and immediately saw things explode for them. “It all goes back to the member change thing. To catch a breath or even find time to rehearse for a gig was difficult, let alone being able to sit-down for an extended period of time bouncing ideas off of each other,” says Jacobs.

In the past year since Rainey joined, they have completed their first national tour (with a second starting at the end of September), played Wakarusa, moved from the side-stage to the main stage at All Good Music Festival, been added to the upcoming Jam Cruise – through a fan vote that saw them almost double the number of votes the second place band received – and signed with Hyena Records, who will be re-releasing their most recent album, The Bridge. Rainey feels that the whole dynamic of the group has grown, allowing the band to develop ideas and songs together, a newfound collaboration that’s enabled them to expand musically.

The Bridge by Kenny Pusey
Liner likes how each person has brought not just important ingredients to the band but also to him personally. “When we first got Dave he was able to play way more intricate and complicated things and it added a lot to the music. Mike was able to use his deep knowledge of music and his overall funkiness to really give us the feeling we never found with other drummers. Because of his background in jazz, he has influenced me to listen to music in a different way now. I can hear different things,” offers Liner. This, combined with Rainey’s ability to meld his horn to any style and the already rock solid foundation of Liner’s mandolin and Jacobs’ sizzling guitar, gives the band a unique sound that lends itself to intense, adventurous live shows.

Jacobs, who had expressed much skepticism at first agrees. “I never thought I would be in a band with a mandolin and a sax. Who would have dreamt that? There was definite skepticism at first, ‘Is this really what I want?’ But, at the same time, out of all the people I had played with up to that point I knew when it felt right, when it felt good,” Jacobs says. “Playing with Kenny felt right, it felt good. It was pretty unmistakable, same with the other guys.”

On a hot, humid, August night this past summer in the midst of The Bridge’s annual summer residency at the 8×10 Club, the stage was cleared and all that was left was Jacobs seated playing his dobro and Liner standing next to him. They broke into a soulful version of Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” and if you closed your eyes and listened with just the right ears you could hear it. It was a bit faint with a hint of audible hiss, but you could definitely make it out – the slightly faded sound of the “Fire & Ice” tape – the sound of two young musicians searching for their musical path and finding their own unique sound.

Liner thinks back to that cold day and how it shaped The Bridge. “It is cool that the band came out of moments like that as opposed to being music students who had a specific plan or goal to start a particular kind of band. It is cool to think back and see how this all came out of us having a good time with each other.”

“Just being friends,” adds Jacobs.

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