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Published: 2008/02/24
by Randy Ray

Cris Jacobs: A View from The Bridge

With apologies to Arthur Miller, who wrote the one-act play A View from the Bridge and first produced on Broadway in 1955 about corruption on the Brooklyn docks, Jambands.com offers its own view from The Bridge lead guitarist and vocalist, Cris Jacobs. Signed to Hyena Records in 2007 with a self-titled release that mixes bluegrass, rock, country, funk, soul and good ole jam into a unique blend, The Bridge finds itself on and off the road after five-plus years and ready to hit The Bunker Recording Studio in Cockeysville, Maryland to record their follow-up album in March. As Jacobs will explain in this feature, The Bridge is focusing on the art of songwriting after years of blending various influences into their own brand of live improvisational magic. And to be sure, the band has quite a loyal following, especially in their hometown Baltimore area. With that in mind, Jacobs is determined to push the band to the next level. “I feel like the focus of the band is a band that writes good tunes and still improvises in a live setting. I’m starting to realize that first things firstlet’s write some good songs.”

RR: How is the current tour going thus far opening for RAQ on the East Coast? Are there plans for any collaboration between the groups?

CJ: Tonight, actually, we’re planning on doing a whole bunch of collaboration. [Author’s Note: Members of The Bridge sat in with RAQ on “Stuck In A Hole,” Just Kissed My Baby” and “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.”] Last week, Kenny [Liner] and I sat in with them for “Whipping Post.” Last night, Chris [Michetti], the guitar player and, Todd [Stoops], the keyboard player, sat in with us for two tunes. We did a long jam and Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon.” Actually, Mike Gordon was in the house [on “Them Changes” at the Higher Ground in Burlington, Vermont] and sat in with RAQ and it was pretty cool. We’ve been doing three and four-day runs up and down the East Coast. We are going to do another extended cross-country tour in another few months. We will also be spending some time at home getting ready to go into the studio. We’ve been hitting these towns for the last few years that are fortunately starting to build up a little for us.

RR: Which is interesting because your 2007 studio release, the self-titled Hyena Records debut, seems to be an accumulation of all of the band’s momentum. In a way, it captures the great Americana spirit of The Bridgeblues, jazz, jam, bluegrass, soul, hip-hop and country music.

CJ: I think when we were first starting out it’s safe to say we were kind of confused (laughs) as to exactly what musical directions we were going to take. The way the band started was kind of a spontaneous formation. It was Kenny Liner and I being old friends hanging out, an organic progression turning into casual picking sessions to getting a few gigs here and there and, all of a sudden, things started picking up. It was never like we decided, “let’s do this, let’s do this, let’s play bluegrass, let’s play funk.” We all liked so many different kinds of music and it was like we were taking all of this different stuff out for a spin. It was all fun and we enjoyed it all.

The past few years as we continued to grow and realize who we are as a band, songwriters and individual musicians, we were really discovering the roots of our sound and what it is that we feel we really do best. I know it has always been difficult for us to categorize the style we play and a lot of people like to throw words out like “Country” and I can totally see that. We don’t really think about it that way necessarily. I think it kind of naturally comes out to be what it is.

As far as where my songwriting has gone, I’ve definitely dug deeper back into the roots of the music that really means a lot to me and that I am passionate about. That is tied all the way back to Doc Watson, Leadbelly and Delta Blues and all of the music that came from thatclassic rock, bluegrass and roots rock. That element has always been really deep in my musical closet, I guess you could say, mixing it in with all of the different elements and trying to make it our own, throwing a tune out to the bandhaving a rhythm section who has been schooled in funk and New Orleans styleand having them interpret the music the way they do is the way that things are starting to roll.

We’ve realized that we want to be the band that writes songs. We don’t just want to be like a band that gets up there and jams on a riff for 20 minutes without a song attached to it. We want to have a story behind the music. We want some content and substance that we feel can take the music to a different level. I don’t want to say a higher level but to a level where we enjoy the music and it really gets us offmusic that speaks to that emotional level with a story.

RR: You’ve touched upon an area that I’m interested in discussing. With a band name like The Bridge, one can interpret that several ways like a bridge from the past to the future and the way that the group filters in these various cultural elements into the music. Your live shows are also a different form of a bridge, if you will, to your audience from what has been presented in the studio. As the main songwriter, guitarist and vocalist, how do you define your role in The Bridge?

CJ: Well, you know, it’s kind of one of those things that I don’t like to think about too much but I think about. I’ve been trying, from the beginning, to play honestly and from the heart every night. When I sit down to write a song, I’m not trying to be somebody that I’m not. Those different styles of music happen to be the things that really get me off and that I really feel connected toit is carried the way that it needs to be carried, I guess you could saybeing that a lot of the tunes that I’ve written, it is natural that I’m singing them and I’ve taught the band and there are stories that I’ve made up. As far as how I consider my role, it is delivering the song and I’ve been doing that in the live setting and the studio. I’m really just trying to do my best at doing thatbeing honest with it and, playing passionately every night.

RR: What’s that songwriting process like? Do you write on the road or do you try to set aside time when you’re off the road or do you wait for inspiration to hit?

CJ: Actually, it is not as easy for me to write songs on the road, unfortunately, which doesn’t leave all the time in the world for it. I do better when I’m sitting by myself and I have time to throw some ideas around. There are a lot of different processes to writing tunes, sometimes. I’ll start with some musical idea. My general rule when I’m writing a tune is the way the music of the words, melody and rhythm hits my ear. That is the most important part. Filling in the words and the content after that is usually how I work. There are times where there will be an idea of a story that I want to tell or a particular phrase that hits my mind that I think, “Oh, that could be a cool hook for a tune.”

When I actually sit down, it’s not like I’ll write a poem and put it to a melody. I actually try to hear the melody with the sound of the words and the way they roll off the tongue. The goal being that even if somebody didn’t understand one word that I was saying, they could still feel the tune and the emotion of the tune. It is a song, after all. (laughs) It’s not necessarily a political declaration or a book or a poem, it’s a song.

But as far as my process, to be completely honest, I could sit there for four hours at a time and come up with nothing and I could sit there for ten minutes and write a whole song, sometimes. When it is there, it’s there and I hope that, in my mind, I am channeling something and it’s not just me arbitrarily throwing things out. The goal is, hopefully, for me to be channeling some sort of sound that is actually, truly, coming from somewhere and, I’m picking it out and presenting it. That’s what I hope (laughs) in my best days when I’m writing a song. I’m not saying that that always happens but I try to put myself in the best situation and, in a position where I can receive that communication.

RR: How has your myriad of influences helped develop your songwriting?

CJ: I don’t necessarily think, “well, I’m going to write a song with elements of Americana in it.” I think it’s a combination of listening to a lot of that type of music throughout the years and that was kind of the roots of me cutting my teeth on the guitarDoc Watson, Tony Rice, Leadbelly and folk tunes and bluegrass tunes. Learning that music was really the roots of where I started out. It’s just when I naturally hear those types of melodiesthose simple (some people would call them “Countryish” melodies) songs like blues and fiddle tunes. If you listen to old New Orleans music or old Louis Armstrong or old jazz, you can hear similarities in those melodies from a Bill Monroe or Doc Watson tuneall types of melodies in American music and there is such a common ground. I like to think that there is this main tree of American song that has many different branches. World songs, for that matterI guess I’ve just been more exposed to the American aspect of it. I’m just a link on the chain there and that’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t like to conceptualize or think about it so much in those terms, either. I just play what I feel, write what I feel and what I naturally hear in my head. I really take a strong commitment to that. I’m not trying to force something or overdo it or make something different from how I hear it just to be different. Some of it may come out like “You knowI think I’ve heard that before.” Maybe you have, may you haven’t. (laughs)

RR: I think your stage persona definitely supports some of your statements. Like musicians who talk about The Zone, one is channeling and the music is playing the musician rather than the other way around. I always notice that in a musician’s performance and I think that helps bring the audience along on the adventure.

CJ: I appreciate that. That’s the goal. In the best moments, that’s what is going on. You’re just stepping out of the way and letting it come through. You’re presenting this communication of music and you’re just there to present it. I feel that for songwriting and performing that is the ultimate achievement and place to be where it is not about Cris Jacobs, it is about this music that is going on that I happen to be, like I said, presenting.

RR: And The Bridge has presented some of its best shows in a particular city that seems to be very inspirational. How important has Baltimore been to the band?

CJ: Baltimore has probably been the single most important aspect of The Bridge’s career. If it wasn’t for the fans, friends and the reception we’ve gotten in Baltimore, who knows if The Bridge would even still be making music, to be completely honest with you. As it is, when we were first starting out, we were getting so much love from people who were really digging what we were doing and appreciating where we were coming from and they kept coming out to shows. More people kept coming out to shows and it developed into a loyal following where people were loving everything that we were doingmaybe not everything we were doing but there’s a really unique relationship that we have with our hometown audience. It’s challenging for us. It keeps us trying to write new songs and it keeps things fresh so we can come up with new ideas. We go out there and push ourselves every night because, you know, they are very intensely devoted to what we are doing. It’s really a band’s dream come true to have that platform.

Otherwise, when we play out on the road, it can be hit or miss with the crowd, sometimes. That can be for a musician, sometimes, slightly uninspiring and difficult to come up with the inspiration to get out there and give it your all. We try to do it, regardless. After a long tour to come home and play a sold out show for people who are eating up what we do and loving what we dofeeding us that lovecompletely fuels our fire and we say, “O.K. Let’s keep going. Let’s record another album. Let’s write some more tunes.” I really attribute Baltimore to being the fuel to the fire.

RR: The Bridge has a very solid grass roots following. All one has to do is go on your message board to see how passionate the fans can be. If you had to stand back to observe that, do you think some of the loyalty is based on the fact that there are so many different personalities within the band that trigger this diverse audience?

CJ: Yeah, I think you’ve definitely hit on something there. There are certainly different elements that it is unpredictable, exactly, who The Bridge is going to be on a given night. (laughs) It has been for us, as a band, too so it definitely had to have been for the fans.

We’ve been discovering it as we go along. However, I think this whole time, there has been this familiarity to it and that’s what I think grabs people. It is different. It is a fresh perspective. It is a unique conglomerate of styles and musicians. Underlining the whole thing there is this thing that people can relate to, a soul that underlines the whole thing that people are feeling and, they really can get off on. The soul of the songs and the soul of the passion that we put into the performance and a combination of all of those thingsI am trying to really wow them every night, too and not get stagnant and not take them for granted. It’s a give and take thing. They’re giving us the energy. We’ve been fortunate to have that. Obviously with a band like the Grateful Dead, that is the ultimate scale of what that is all about. Phish, too. In our little world, if we get just a little bit of that scale then, I think we’re doing pretty damn good.

RR: Indeed. Hyena Records released your self-titled studio record last year and it fits the double bill for megood road trip and late night chill out record.

CJ: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. We’re really proud of that record. I really love that album. I think we all do. We worked really hard on it. It was one of those things where we went into the studio with maybe half the tunes solid and a couple of them weren’t even written, yet. It was taking us a while to get things donethe typical shit that happens when bands go into the studio. We thought we would be out of there in a month. Six months later(laughs) We had our heads down and were digging in and we didn’t really appreciate how good it really turned out until it was completely finished. We sat back and listened to the whole thing and said, “Wowwe did a pretty good job here.”

It was a very hard working experience. We didn’t have an outside producer. Kenny and I took the reins on a lot of the production and were there at every session. Trying to capture the soul of the tunes different from a live experience was a completely different thing. Not only that, during the whole time we were in the studio, we were going through membership changes. Our drummer, Mike [Gambone], had been fairly new to the band and Patrick [Rainey] joined the band halfway through the process on saxophone. There were a lot of things going on that weren’t necessarily helping the matter but I think we had some pretty damn good songs. (laughs)

RR: What is the approach going to be for the next studio album, which The Bridge begins to record in March?

CJ: It’s been crazy because we’ve really been traveling a lot lately and been on the road, a lot and personally I don’t write as well on the road. It is not as easy to focus. I really like to feel the tunes out. There are two to three songs that the band has already been playing live that’ll be recorded. I’m in the process of writing a whole slew of new ones and you’re catching me right smack in the middle of it all where I’ve taught the band two or three brand new songs that we’ve never even played before live. I have a whole bunch
of other ones ready to go or some that need lyrical touch ups and need to throw a bridge

or a verse or chorus init’s going to be a little bit of both.

There’s definitely going to be some learning of tunes and recording them in probably a one-day stand. (laughs) That is sometimes best to catch a tuneright when it’s fresh. It’ll be an interesting process. We, normally, have had more time to prepare so it’s going to be an adventure. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s good to work under pressure and I’m excited about that. Sometimes if I have too much time to sit around and look at a song that I’ve written, I’ll talk myself out of a lot of really good songs. (laughs) There is just a little bit more pressure to finish up a lyric and be a little more offhand and improvisational about it. It’ll probably help, I think.

RR: Was March selected several months back as a target date for the studio and suddenly, that month is here on the calendar?

CJ: It was a combination of that and talking with Hyena and what they expected out of us. We wanted to release another album. Looking at our calendar, there are a lot of gigs to play this year and March seemed like a good time to take a little breath. After that, things start to pick up and get a little busier. Of course, summer time is festival season and we’ve got a lot of things going on, then. We’d like to have it finished on time for the label to have all of their lead-time to do their release in the fall. That’s when we’re hoping to release the album. That’s why March ended up happening: “Well, we’ve got a month here, let’s just do it.” Luckily, we got the studio time right away. We’ll be recording at the same place that we have been in the past.

RR: The Bunker Recording Studio in Maryland?

CJ: Yep. It is definitely spur of the moment but we knew it was coming and it is creeping up. It’s going to be a wild ride. We have five days a week, 12-hour days booked for the whole month of March. Hopefully, we’ll bang it out and camp out with it and I think it is going to be great. I’m looking forward to the new material and where the band is at. This is the most solid musically that we’ve ever been. The last record, Patrick had just joined the band and Mike was still fairly new. Already, I can tell from showing the guys these tunes that their input has been more enthusiastic this time around. They feel more a part of things than last time. They’ve really been helping out arrangement-wise and giving me some feedback here and there.

RR: What can we expect from the material on this album?

CJ: Wellyou know, I’m not sure what will make the cut. I do know that it is fair to say that the songwriting focus has definitely shifted to more likeI guess, songwriting. I don’t know how that sounds but when we first started out, we were doing a lot of instrumental tunes and a lot of things incorporated with random styles here and there. It was more of a hodge podge and a “Hey, let’s try this.” Now, I think, for me at least, I feel like I’m getting more comfortable with who I am as a singer and a songwriter.

That has definitely been the focus more so than some fancy licks that we created. Those are in there but all within the context of the tune, all making sure that they make sense and that it is tied to a song. There are no instrumentals. I haven’t been writing any instrumentals; however, I have been writing instrumental sections with lyrics. I’m trying to do a little bit of both. I feel like the focus of the band is a band that writes good tunes and still improvises in a live setting. I’m starting to realize that first things firstlet’s write some good songs. Second thingwhen we play live, let’s stretch them out. There’s a couple of new tunes that when we play live, they will stretch out for twenty minutes. We’ll be able to create a little three, four-minute compact version of the tune, as well.

RR: Songs with a verse, verse, chorus, verse, verse, chorus, verse format but there’s enough of an opening to improvise.

CJ: Yeah, there is one in particular, a brand new one that has an interesting instrumental section that just goes completely in a different direction than would be commonplace. We’re trying to do different things but also, trying to incorporate the same elementssimple, soulful melodies and nothing that seems too askew for the sake of being askew.

_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com

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