Happy, Dirty, and Fun All at Once, The Bridge Is a Jam Band With an Urban Soul
At an early February recording session for WTMD (89.7 FM)’s “Five O’Clock Shadow” cover-song program, Baltimore quintet the Bridge nailed its cover of Son House’s “Death Letter” on the first take. Guitarist/songwriter Cris Jacobs’ voice was full of grit and stoic pain as his stinging riffs on the lap-steel guitar meshed with a repeating blues riff from Kenny Liner’s mandolin, Adam Iorfida’s plodding saxophone, and a steady rhythm from bassist Dave Markowitz and drummer John Thomakos, who played an upside-down trash can. About halfway through this rendition of the old Delta blues song, Liner leaned into the microphone and started beatboxing along with the pulse. The quintet ended with a short, meandering jam that slowed to a halt as the rhythm section dropped out.
Back in the control room, they listened to their work. “I like it,” Jacobs said. “It sounds really dirty.”
When Jacobs’ voice came on the track trying to capture Son House’s passionate, biblical intonation, a smile crossed Liner’s face. “Man,” he said. “You sound serious.”
It’s really not fair to say it, but when two Jewish guys from Pikesville with killer guitar and mandolin chops try to play old blues tunes and New Orleans-style funk, there’s only one way it can come out: the jam-band way. It’s that happy-grooved, smoked-out white man’s treatment of black music that relies heavily on improvisation, the energy of live shows, and a fan base that fell off of the Phish bandwagon after their memories of the Great Went festival began to fade. And there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just that in order to understand the Bridge—which begins a four-week, Wednesday-night residency at the Funk Box this week—you have to understand that this is where it’s coming from.
It all started when 26-year-old Jacobs and 25-year-old Liner, two high-school buddies from Northwest Baltimore, started playing bluegrass ballads and old blues covers at open-mic nights at Paloma’s, Mick O’Shea’s, and the Sidebar Tavern in the spring of 2001. Just over three years ago, they added bass, alto sax, and a drum kit to form the Bridge, a band that is of late selling out every club it plays with its energy, earnestness, and love of “fun” music.
The tunes on its 2004 Cross Street Market are well-grounded in the classic jammy sound: Southern-fried lyrics and simple bebop melody lines that shift through multiple parts and choruses layered over funk rhythms and extended into lengthy sessions. But something more is going on here. The Bridge takes pains to keep its music refined, but not too refined. It doesn’t lose the edginess that defines the roots music to which its own sound alludes.
“Our music has a hometown rootsy feel to it,” Jacobs says. “It’s got a down-home crab-eatin’ vibe, but also a watch-your-back-’round-these-parts vibe.”
The everyday jam band can’t pull off a decent rendition of a dark-blues lament, and that seriousness and ability comes through even when the Bridge is playing its more lighthearted stuff. Market’s “Good Rhythm” has a wild banjo line that keeps the jam honest, and “Rosalita” drips soul with its horn section and sustained organ accompaniment.
Another peculiar and distinctive part of the band’s sound is Liner’s beatboxing, which is startling on first listen; you wonder if the band couldn’t just do without it. But Liner’s sputters and vocal thumps, which he adds sporadically to only a few songs, start to fit in after the second or third time you hear them.
“I use beatboxing to enhance the music,” Liner says. “If you go see Joe Beatboxer, he’s gonna do routines—he’s gonna do the Usher song from the radio.” His vocal percussion works well, “because Cris has really pushed me to make it a serious thing, whereas most people see it just as a novelty.”
Liner has been practicing and perfecting beatboxing since he first heard the Fat Boys in elementary school, and first started using it as a rhythm track for performances when he and Jacobs played as a duo. He has beatboxed with many other local acts, including local hip-hop/beatbox promoter Shodekeh. Now, Liner says beatboxing is something of a nervous habit. “I’ve walked up to people in Federal Hill Park at night who are freestyling,” he says. “And I’ll just start beatboxing along with them and immediately we have a connection.”
Federal Hill’s Funk Box has been the Bridge’s home base. Here it attracts its biggest crowds, including a sold-out New Year’s Eve show a couple of months ago. The upcoming residency finds the Bridge in a new lineup, featuring Thomakos, a veteran scenester (he’s played with Carl Filipiak, Naked Blue, Billy Kemp, Never Never, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) on drums. The band expects to try out new material and experiment a little more with its arrangements. “The hometown crowd really pushes us to make it different every night and to try new things,” Jacobs says.
Such endorsements, however, are red flags to anyone wary of just another jam-band concert. Is the audience going to bully the band into long, tiresome improvisations? Should we worry that Liner handed out fliers for the Bridge’s upcoming residency at Keller Williams’ show at the Funk Box a few weeks back?
The guys in the Bridge aren’t worried, because they feel that the jam-band label is more about the fans than about the music. “We like to concentrate on quality songwriting,” Jacobs says. “Not just noodling jams that go on for an hour.”
Perhaps it’s those songs that have local fans latching onto the Bridge vibe with such enthusiasm. The Bridge has certainly worked hard enough to be noticed, playing pockets of shows from North Carolina to Massachusetts over weekends away from their day jobs. The Bridge’s local popularity isn’t just a fluke. Liner puts it bluntly: “We’ve earned it.”