By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun
November 22, 2011
They didn't want it to end this way, but it will.
After 10 years, five albums and roughly 1,500 shows, the Bridge — one of Baltimore's most successful bands — will take the stage one last time on Thanksgiving Eve. Without any opening acts, the final show will simply be 41/2 hours of the band's trademark mix of folk, rock, blues and improvisation.
Though never mentioned alongside high-profile Baltimore acts such as Dan Deacon and Wye Oak, the Bridge has accomplished what many bands from the area haven't: an annual set at the All Good Festival, a slot at Bonnaroo, international gigs, an album produced by Los Lobos' Steve Berlin (this year's "National Bohemian") and one of the more devoted fan bases the city has seen.
It wasn't enough.
On May 26, the band posted on its website "A Farewell from the Bridge," explaining that "at the end of the day, the economy won, and we are forced to close up shop." There were no fights or creative differences. In an era where nearly every aspect of the music industry struggles to be profitable, the Bridge simply couldn't sustain itself.
The band's relationship with Baltimore is complicated. While the Bridge cultivated a die-hard, grass-roots fan base that regularly packed Federal Hill's 8x10 every week in the summer, the band never gained acceptance from what it calls "the hipster media" or its more famous peers.
"They're the biggest band from the area since Jimmie's Chicken Shack," says the 8x10's co-owner Brian Shupe. "They were too big to be ignored. [The press] couldn't accept them, so instead they had to be snarky to them."
It wasn't just at home. While national media outlets such as Rolling Stone fell in love with Baltimore's idiosyncratic scene — the quirky Deacon and Wham City, the D.I.Y. art-punk movement led by Double Dagger and Ponytail and Pitchfork-darlings such as Beach House and Animal Collective — the Bridge was the ignored "jam band," a label that in some circles is the kiss of death.
Kenny Liner, who plays mandolin and beat-boxes, takes pride in the fact that his band became so popular that the cool kids had to eventually acknowledge them.
"I saw Double Dagger at Ottobar [recently], and they made fun of our band from the stage," Liner says. "I was thrilled we were big enough to be that joke. I was in the front row. I'm a huge fan of them."
Cris Jacobs, the band's singer and guitarist, says the "jam band" branding always perplexed him.
"I'm not really clear what the definition of that is," he says. "It's a wide palette you're dealing with. People think you sound like Phish and Disco Biscuits. We consider ourselves a band that took pride in the live shows and the musicianship."
But pride can't pay bills, a fact that Jacobs realized he could no longer ignore. Armed with an album they considered their best work and a new publicist to spread the word, the band hit the road in support of "National Bohemian" earlier this year. It was an opportunity to make new fans, play bigger clubs and to make some money. Then came reality: they were playing the same clubs to the same number of people.
At an Atlanta breakfast spot after a "ho-hum kinda show" with a "ho-hum kinda crowd," Jacobs knew it was time to be honest. He asked himself and his bandmates, "What are we doing?"
"We're still best friends, brothers," Jacobs says. "It's the reality of it. We're not 23 anymore; we're 33. Being on the road, not making money, being away from our families — it's taxing after a while."
It didn't always feel like a grind. There were times the band felt on top of the world, like three summers ago, when the Bridge played Switzerland's annual Blue Balls Festival. The band stayed in a penthouse that overlooked the city, had VIP access to the festival and played an "amazing" set in front of 2,000 people.
"There were definitely some times where we stopped and looked at each other and said, 'If it all ended tomorrow, [this was] awesome,'" Jacobs says.
For a band that's toured the world, its members get most passionate talking about their hometown.
"Every single place we'd go, I viewed it as being an ambassador to Baltimore," Liner says. "When we were in Europe, we always brought Baltimore with us. Even in Pittsburgh, I wore my Ravens gear."
Shupe, who experienced "world-class improvisational music" while on the road as a photographer with the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead, says it was the musicianship that set the Bridge apart.
"They were willing to look down every hallway, open every door until they hit the right groove or note or rhythm in order to get the music to the next level," Shupe says. "They've been lucky to have a forgiving audience that lets them find the space they need. It's a delicate situation between band and audience."
That relationship will come to a celebratory head Wednesday, when the Bridge performs in front of the sold-out Rams Head Live audience. Jacobs and Liner are tight-lipped about the show's details, divulging only that the sets will follow a loose, chronological order and the advertised special guests are former members of the band.
When the Bridge — which also includes Dave Markowitz (bass, vocals), Patrick Rainey (saxophone), Mike Gambone (drums) and Mark Brown (keyboards) — packs up Wednesday, its members will be moving on, literally and figuratively. Liner is moving out of town at the end of the month, in need of a change. Jacobs and Gambone will get in the studio as part of the Cris Jacobs Band. The other members, Jacobs says, are taking time to "figure out their own deal," but everyone will be playing music in some capacity.
As the pressure has mounted — an early sell-out, friends begging for passes, the reality that the end is really here — it's natural to wonder if the band is nervous about Thanksgiving Eve. But this is Baltimore, the city the band "loves more than anything," so Jacobs says there's no need to worry.
"Our fans, especially in Baltimore, have been the support that kept [the band] going for so long," he says. "Once we hit the stage, I know we'll be fine. We'll be so happy to do it one last time."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun