The Bridge’s Impending Last Waltz
Standing backstage at one of the coolest little music venues in the country, looking at the black and white photographs that cover the walls, I couldn’t help but notice how many of them featured members of the band I was about to open for. The 8×10, formerly the Funk Box, is known to locals as “the house that built The Bridge,” the hottest jamband to come out of Baltimore since Lake Trout – and for any local act, having the chance to support them there was a real treat. Unfortunately, a week before our show, The Bridge announced they were breaking up.
Here was a band that was signed to a record label, a band that toured and played summer festivals. These guys were road warriors – to be respected. They’d crossed heavy seas and conquered. But now they’d returned to tell us there is no fountain of youth. It was disconcerting.
In his open letter on Facebook, front man Cris Jacobs cited the economy and “harsh realities of life on the road” as the chief reasons for deciding to dissolve the project after ten years. Reading through the dozens of responses that poured in from fans, many of them expressing disappointment, wishing the boys well and thanking them for all the good times – and at least one quoting “Brokedown Palace” – you can get a sense of the kind of dedication they had built up around them over the years.
I have to admit I was a bit skeptical of the news at first. Why would a band that seemed to have everything going for them, all the right ingredients, suddenly break up? Side projects are pretty common in the jamband world, but this wasn’t being called a side project. And they’d just released their best album to date, National Bohemian, produced by Los Lobos multi-instrumentalist, Steve Berlin.
Jambands coming up in Baltimore in recent years have looked up to The Bridge, so of course, news of the split was confusing at best. The night of our show with them, I said as much to Cris Jacobs. The Bridge has been a model for mine and many other local bands, proof that the grassroots approach still works – that if you build it, they will come.
“The grassroots thing works on a local level,” Jacobs admitted. “But there’s a lot of road between here and Denver.” – About seventeen hundred miles to be correct, and at least another twelve hundred between Denver and Portland – two cities besides Baltimore where The Bridge has been able to pack venues. However, getting there is half the battle, and it just isn’t as easy for bands to tour as it was ten years ago.
But bearded Jacobs smiles easily and is clearly taking it all in stride. Actually, Cris seems perpetually optimistic about the whole thing, and I guess you’d have to be. After giving it their all for as long as these guys have, regrets just aren’t an option.
A band known for its killer live performances, The Bridge has weathered several line-up changes and five studio projects, and throughout it all fans in Baltimore have stood by them, coming out in droves to dance away their cares while the band tore up the stage – which they did consistently.
Last summer, The Bridge attempted to record a few of these live performances for a CD release that would have been their final with their record label, but when all was said and done the files wound up being irretrievable from the hard drive. Much like touring expenses, indie labels are unlikely to shell out money for studio time, and The Bridge has literally paid their own dues – on the road and in the studio. When the band reached out to Steve Berlin, they realized they would have to go it alone, so they took a chance and cut ties with their label – which had never given them a dime anyway – and funded the project themselves.
Despite the invaluable learning experience of working with a seasoned professional like Berlin, The Bridge as a business continued to operate in the red and has remained at a level of modest success, unable to break into a larger market. They all worked very hard to make the dream come true, but as cofounder and mandolin player, Kenny Liner, said in a phone interview, “Financially, we just couldn’t hold the ship.”
“Life catches up to you after awhile,” Jacobs added in an email. But in recent months he has been the most active of any in the band, performing as a solo act and in several new combinations.
There was a time when I thought The Bridge was destined for stadiums owned by banks and airlines. They had that BIG RAWK sound. Favorite sons of Walther Productions, purveyor of one of the coolest music festivals around, they were often buzzing on Relix magazine’s radar, and they had even snagged an investor – a mysterious sugar daddy who believed in the music they were making enough to allow them to quit their day jobs and be full time artists. They were, quite simply, living the dream. With their stint with the record label over and no money in the pot, the guys may be at a financial crossroads, but Jacobs insists that current lack of funding is not the reason they’re calling it quits. Note: if you are one of the people who scours Kickstarter for broke artists you can help raise out of the gutter, I’m sorry to tell you that this bridge isn’t for sale.
“We’ve already kick started it so many times,” Kenny said.
Despite the harsh realities of life on the road and little return on their investment, The Bridge has built a ten year career on giving everything they’ve got back to their fans.
That “everything” is rooted in authentic songwriting that draws largely from the traditions of American folk music. They’ve built a solid foundation of songs about railroads and riversides, unlikely outlaws and homemade whiskey. They’ve written and produced nearly 100 songs as a band, stories populated by an entire cast of characters like Rosie, Geraldine, Blackjack Jake, Old Man Willoughby and Governor Jones.