The Bridge was on its spring tour promoting the newly released album , praised by critics as perhaps the band’s most poignant recording, when its members had to face something that had become all too familiar in their 10 years on the road: a low-paying show that would boast a modest crowd at best. The band even considered canceling its tour.
“It just kinda fell apart one day,” saxophone player Patrick Rainey recalled.
Over breakfast, the band decided to cancel only its Birmingham, AL, show and drive to New Orleans to continue its tour. Then came the breakdown that would lead to the band’s breakup. The van died.
“It was $1,000 to fix. We were sitting there for six hours while our van was being fixed, and we just said, ‘We can’t do this anymore,’” Rainey said. “‘We’re spending someone else’s money, we’re not getting anything done, the record isn’t selling.’ It was just a realization that everybody has tried really, really hard, and you’re broke down in the middle of nowhere, none of your friends within 500 miles, and you’re calling people and being like, ‘We need $5,000. Again.’”
It was not internal tensions, creative differences or rock star-like substance abuse problems that prompted The Bridge to call it quits. It was strictly a financial decision.
Even though a friend was managing and investing in the band, the payback seemed nowhere in sight.
“The saddest part is that the music got so good,” Rainey said. “The better it got, the more you believed in it. It was super heartbreaking.”
The band plays a three-set farewell show at Rams Head Live in Baltimore tonight.
An Organic Formation
About a decade ago, guitarist Cris Jacobs ran into mandolin player Kenny Liner, an old buddy from school, at a bluegrass house show in Pikesville. After jamming that night, the two began hanging out regularly at Jacobs’ house, playing music with no real objective.
“Neither of us ever thought it would be a band,” Liner said. “I couldn’t even play a minor chord at the time.”
Just for fun, they invited some friends, bassist Ryan Porter and drummer Paul Weinberg, to eat crabs and play music one night. They recorded the jam, and listening later, Jacobs thought they found a cool, different sound.
“I thought we were mixing some different kind of styles together in a unique way,” Jacobs said. “[There was] bluegrass, Americana, utilizing effects, a funky rhythm section. It was sort of this hybrid of funk, bluegrass, rock, psychedelic.”
Growing the Band
Having already made fans out of friends and family, the band started gigging as a five-piece, adding a sax player to the lineup. The band that no one intended to happen would soon become everything of importance for Jacobs and Liner.
Before going all-out for The Bridge, Jacobs was working half-heartedly at an entry-level finance job.
“I would literally sit at my desk and noodle song lyrics and write out my scale patterns,” he said.
One night, Jacobs was lying in bed dreading going to work. So, he went in the next day and quit.
As he taught guitar lessons and waited tables, Liner worked several different jobs to pay the bills. Outside of work, they tirelessly promoted The Bridge.
“I went to every single show in Baltimore for about three years to promote our band,” Liner said. “Me and Cris played acoustic outside of shows as people would leave and hand out flyers.”
The hard work paid off. Crowds numbering in the hundreds started coming to shows, and the band toured up and down the East Coast and throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.
“No matter where we were…once I started beatboxing,” a form of vocal percussion, “the crowd started to get a little more warmed up to us,” Liner said. “And once I brought the crowd in, we could play more of our introverted songs.”
Even on The Bridge’s 2002 debut, the young band played a soulful mix of blues, funk, bluegrass and rock with a strong singer-songwriter presence, developing a sound that can’t be pigeonholed with one-word genres.
At the core of the band’s uniqueness was tight musicianship. With thumping bass and driving drums backing bluesy vocals and guitar, textural mandolin playing and theatric saxophone, the band explored improvisational territory with poise and telepathic chemistry.
“I definitely knew that they were the real thing because they always put their musicianship first above anything else,” said Brian Shupe, one of the owners of The 8x10 in Baltimore. “It wasn’t about how I look or how I’m getting the girls, it was putting the music first.”
That musicianship is what caught the attention of the four guys who would join Jacobs and Liner on the road until the band’s breakup.
“It was really eclectic and there was a lot of elements of blues,” said keyboardist Mark Brown, a blues-influenced player. “On top of that there is a kind of a roots-rock back that can do anything from funk to bluegrass, but they also have a beatbox…I never really considered that an option in a rock band.”
Brown, who was once reprimanded for improvising in the American Music Theater band, found a comfortable home in The Bridge in 2008.
For drummer Mike Gambone, who joined in 2005, it was a different brand of improvisation he had to learn. Coming from a jazz background, and having never played bluegrass, Gambone studied up.
“I had to really do my homework and get more acquainted with the style of Little Feat and Grateful Dead and how they jammed,” he said.
Rainey joined in 2006 after sitting in with the band at a show in Philadelphia. Improvising is what got him the gig.
“I was like, ‘Hey Cris, we should go over some tunes,’ and he sat down with me for like 30 seconds,” Rainey laughed.
Bassist Dave Markowitz, who played in Black Eyed Susan with Weinberg and Porter before they joined The Bridge, was always a fan. He considered the band’s diverse sound the full package, so joining the band in 2005 was a no-brainer.
As the band refined its lineup and music, it was playing bigger festivals and bigger shows along the way. The Bridge earned itself opening spots on tours with Phish’s Mike Gordon, Tea Leaf Green and Galactic, several summer residencies at the 8x10, yearly spots at the All Good Festival in West Virginia and a spot at premier music festival Bonnaroo in 2010, among many others. The band traveled all over the country, flying out to the West Coast for shows and even touring Europe.
“The growth and change over the 10 years has been to the point that I don’t necessarily have the ability to listen to the old stuff because they’ve gotten so much better,” said Jessy Gross, a longtime friend of the band and an unofficial Bridge historian.
The band and its audience have grown together, blossoming into a tightly knit community.
The Bridge Family
“We never just wanted to play for our fans, we wanted to play with our fans, create more of a community, and in Baltimore, that’s exactly what we did,” Liner said. “People constantly refer to The Bridge fans as ‘The Bridge Family’ and I just think that’s a beautiful thing.”
In Baltimore and beyond, shows function as family reunions and dance parties, with The Bridge as the soundtrack.
“Their being a band and the music and the different places they played music has been the catalyst for one of the most loving and caring communities I have ever been a part of, and it’s multigenerational,” Gross said. “It’s a combination of the music and people that has been the foundation for something that has been incomparable to anything that I’ve known.”
And the band loves its family – so much so that it offered a free, all-request show at the 8x10 last week. The band teased the audience about requests it didn’t want to play (but mostly, played them anyway) and even gave in to unusual requests. When one fan requested a three-song segue, the band complied without hesitation.
Shupe, who happily introduced the band at his venue last week, said this open line of communication with the fans is what allowed the band to explore different sounds.
“Some audiences don’t have the musical knowledge, the emotional capacity, to let a band take some space and try to figure out how to get the music to the next level,” he said. “Their audience was very music savvy and there was a very good give and take between the audience and the band.”
The End of The Bridge
The band released National Bohemian in February, and was pumped to hit the road with its most ambitious recording to date. It was produced by Steve Berlin from Los Lobos and featured some of the band’s best collective work.
“We kinda got that fire again and we were feeling creative again and like this could maybe be the next level and things could fall into place,” Jacobs said. “After recording that record, which we were super proud of, we went out on the road and it was just same old, same old.”
The Bridge struggled to pull audiences like it did in the Baltimore area, with a few exceptions. While the band admittedly made some mistakes, no one’s been able to figure out why The Bridge never quite took off.
“All I can say is that anybody who doesn’t like The Bridge hasn’t heard The Bridge,” Shupe said.
Some fans and band members alike feel that the “jam band” label hurt the band more than it helped.
“Being labeled a jam band, from a marketing standpoint is extremely tough, and it gives people automatically a reason to not like you,” Liner said. “I thought everybody could come to our show and at least hear one or two songs they really like.”
Jordan August, a photographer who has been shooting the band for four years, said the label was the band’s biggest hurdle.
“They do jam, but they themselves and I would never label them as a jam band because there’s too much heart and soul and singer-writer going on,” he said. “…If someone could just take a step back and maybe even listen and read one song’s worth of lyrics, they’d see there’s a much deeper purpose.”
Regardless of why the band wasn’t seeing the growth it hoped for, its members could no longer ignore the band’s dire financial situation.
“We were living really far out of our means,” Gambone said. “For all the traveling we did and the money that was spent traveling and purchasing merchandise and on publicists and all, the numbers just didn’t add up. We continued to lose money and we didn’t see any point of relief.”
In May, the band announced on its website that this year’s annual Thanksgiving Eve show would be its last.
Tonight’s show, which sold out three weeks in advance, may be the last time Jacobs, Liner, Markowitz, Gambone, Rainey and Brown take the stage as The Bridge, but it certainly won’t be the last time they perform.
Jacobs will be playing with the Cris Jacobs Band, which features Gambone on drums, an upright bassist, a peda-steel guitarist and a multi-instrumentalist playing percussion, drums, acoustic guitar and singing with Jacobs. He’ll also be playing solo shows and giving guitar lessons. Outside of the CJB, Gambone is also playing with his own trio.
Markowitz has a holiday duo show coming up with Rainey under the name Joyum, a tongue-in-cheek combination of ‘Jew’ and ‘Goyum.’ Markowitz, who is expecting his first child in March, is also reconnecting with some musician friends and working in the food and wine industry.
Rainey is playing with as many groups as he can, including Freedom Enterprise at the 8x10 on Friday, Dec. 9. He also recently played his first solo show.
Brown is teaching piano during the day at the piano studio he and his wife started prior to his joining The Bridge. He’s also gigging with Philadelphia-based band The Late Ancients and looking to hit the studio to record a funky organ trio solo project. His ultimate goal is to find another band with which to go on the road.
As for Liner, he’s moving to Portland, OR, this week. He will continue to help manage Beatles-reggae tribute band Yellow Dubmarine, whose album he recently produced, as well as Gold Lion Records. In Portland, he doesn’t have a job or band lined up, but is excited about plugging into a new place, with new musicians with which to play.
“Personally, the end of an era to me always means the start of a new beginning,” Liner said. “And I think everyone in the band is viewing this as a new beginning.”