The Bridge: Fire & Ice
By: Tim Newby
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.
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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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.”
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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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