The Bridge’s Impending Last Waltz
Cris Jacobs has the ability to write songs that seem like they’ve always existed. It’s a rare gift, the talent to pluck this stuff out of thin air. He seems to have what Robert Hunter called “a window into his dreams.” But both Jacobs and Liner are charismatic front men who tell great stories with their music. And by losing The Bridge, it feels like we are losing a bridge to the past, to these stories, these traditional American lyrics, and the grassroots traditions that extend back to The Grateful Dead and troubadours of times past. Their disbanding certainly creates a void in Baltimore that many bands are eager to fill, but what does it say about the music industry? The Bridge’s predicament provides a cautionary tale of the economic and creative issues confronting jambands today.
Being in a band doesn’t mean getting up and going to work every day – it requires a more fluid approach to the concept of a “grown-up career.” The “long van rides, smoky bars, sleepless nights, wicked hangovers, cheap hotels and flat tires” that Jacobs told his fans were “all worth it” also have a tendency to wear on human beings physically and psychologically. With the chemistry that these guys have on stage you would think they were built for the road. But as Robbie Robertson famously said at the end of The Last Waltz, the road is “an impossible way of life.” – Although I’m pretty sure Levon Helm still disagrees. Some people are cut out for touring and some aren’t, but you don’t necessarily realize that when you start out. As Jacobs pointed out to me, it is a lot easier to do as a single guy in your 20’s than it is as a married man in your 30’s.
Inspired by his work with Berlin, Kenny Liner has come into his own as a producer and is now more comfortable behind the scenes than on the road. But with Cris Jacobs’ packed schedule of shows, he obviously has other plans.
With half as many band members as The Bridge, their indie jam-rock contemporaries to the north, The Slip, are also familiar with the difficulties of touring. Even as a trio, The Slip hardly tours outside of the Northeast. After a rare show in Baltimore a couple of years ago, I asked Brad Barr why his project with songwriter, Nathan Moore, Surprise Me Mr. Davis, hadn’t played more on the east coast – how come they weren’t famous yet? He kind of shrugged and told me that they just do better in the Northwest. The Bridge also does well in that part of the country. But gas prices have more than doubled in the past ten years.
Given the current economy, are jambands becoming more localized? Finding it harder to afford the expense of heavy travel, are bands now confined to carving out a career in their respective regions? The advent of “couch tour” popularized by Phish’s live webcasts has made it almost as much fun to experience your favorite band from the comfort of home. Lesser known bands, such as west coast-based Moonalice also rely on streaming video as an alternative way to reach their audience. Recording and broadcasting costs very little once you have the equipment, and Moonalice, who at one point also had all the right ingredients (i.e. G. E. Smith and T. Bone Burnett) now swears by it as a means of survival.
Jambands do seem to be more regionally-based these days – occasionally breaking into a larger network through the advent of festival culture and the internet. As summer festivals continue to multiply and the number of bands on their rosters grows, it becomes just as much a sign of an oversaturated market as it is of a thriving one. Many jambands want to have their own festival, but few of the bands in attendance can bank their careers on an appearance at one. Woodstock may have had the power to break Santana, but our culture isn’t the same.
We live in a niche culture of endless niches. It’s rare that the majority of youth in America will rally around one group like they once did. There are simply more choices than there used to be. We are inundated with subgenre upon subgenre, and being eclectic isn’t as fashionable as it was in the nineties.
The Bridge, for better or worse, is no one trick pony. They draw from many different influences that often include afro/Cuban elements as much as folk and funk. Ultimately, their diversity of musical styles may have worked against them. Jacobs agrees that The Bridge was “maybe too diverse.”
“We were difficult to market,” he told me. “Too jammy for the singer/songwriter blues crowd, not jammy enough for the jamband crowd, too rocking for the folky/bluegrass crowd, and too bluesy for the rock crowd.”
Simply put, it is hard to play a wide range of music and maintain a consistent fan base. In today’s overcrowded market, the 21st century jamband must occupy some specific subgenre in order to survive – most likely bluegrass, funk or electronica. Phish may be free to do whatever they want, whether it’s dip into reggae, bluegrass and classic rock in the same set, or play an hour of space inside a storage shed. But they earned their stripes in the 90’s when jambands were hot, and of course, the game is not the same.
The grassroots model is not the same as it was ten years ago. Just because you build it doesn’t mean that they will come. Just because you and your friends throw great parties doesn’t mean it will turn into the Clifford Ball. But Baltimore’s beloved band, The Bridge, seemed beyond all that. They seemed blessed. Their fans were there from the beginning, and any jamband to arise in Baltimore in the last ten years has inevitably had to grapple with being in their shadow.