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New Groove

Published: 2004/07/29
by Benjy Eisen

The Bridge

The concept of a bridge in music can go in a thousand different directions. You could be talking about the bridge of a stringed instrument, such as a mandolin, violin, or guitar. You could be talking about the bridge of a song, connecting the verses with the chorus. You could be talking about the bridge formed between musician and audience. You could be talking about the bridge connecting multiple genres with each other that, for example, many jambands cross. Or you could be talking about, you know, The Bridge, the hottest band to come out of Baltimore since Lake Trout. Well, okay, the only band to come out of Baltimore since Lake Trout. And while both bands share the same hometown, that's about the only bridge existing between the two bands, thereby denying a convenient "Baltimore sound" for journalists like myself. No matter. Like their hometown predecessor, The Bridge offers enough interesting things to write about as it is. Like their beatboxing mandolin player. Like their weekly residency at the one of the top live music venues in the country. Like their ambitious plan to become the next crossover success from the live jam scene.

In two very different ways, Kenny Liner and Ryan Porter have dual roles in the Bridge. Kenny alternates between mandolin and human beatbox, while Ryan is the band's bassist and full-time manager.

The following is from an email conversation I had with both of them:

JAMBANDS: Can you tell me, in your words, how the band formed?

RYAN: The foundation of the Bridge was formed about ten years ago. Cris [Jacobs] (guitar) and I got our instruments together and began a Grateful Dead, Phish and others cover band. Kenny [Liner] (mandolin) would occasionally sit in on bongos, but it was never really serious. We went our separate ways for college but remained in touch. I began playing more jazz and funk while Cris was getting schooled in bluegrass. When we both graduated college we moved back to Baltimore. I graduated a year later than Cris so he had been home hanging around and picking bluegrass with Kenny. When I got back we began to play together and it became a little more eclectic and Kenny was adding the beatbox and we were all pretty psyched on the sound. We did a few gigs as an acoustic trio, The Bridge, and eventually invited Paul [Weinberg] (drums) over to jam. We had all played with Paul and his old band Black-Eyed Susan at one time or another so we were all already friends. We really had no intention of Paul joining the band, but after a tape of our practices got out, people began to ask when we were going to be playing gigs. So we just started playing gigs. Paul played double duty for a while in both bands, but joined the Bridge permanently a few months later. We later added a sax player, Chris Bentley, who lasted a little while but could not commit for the long haul. So we put an ad on and we met Adam [Iorfida] who is our current sax player. We have been playing as the Bridge for a little over two years now.

JAMBANDS: You obviously don’t shy away from the jamband label if you found one of your members through Yet, the label is almost an automatic misnomer, in that just being a "jamband" doesn’t really describe a band’s style. What’s your take on it?

RYAN: I define a jamband by the scene we are in more than the music we make. There are so many different types of bands out there that are being characterized as a jamband that there obviously is more to it. The jamband scene is open to so many different styles of music and they are open to so many new things. There are definitely some underlying traits, especially the love for improvisation, but to put all these different bands under one category is just a way for people who don't understand to put a label on us.

I mean take for example The Disco Biscuits, Leftover Salmon and Medeski, Martin & Wood these bands all get labeled "jambands" but as a fan of all of their music I know that they couldn't be more different. We don't have a problem with being labeled a jamband because we love to jam and improvise, but we try to focus more on the song and lyric writing and would hope that people who don't like "jambands" would give some new bands a chance before lumping them into a very obscure category.

We all have very diverse musical influences and it definitely comes through in our music. So in a given night our music can go from funk to soul to hip-hop to bluegrass to rock n' roll. We want the fans to never know what to expect just like we never know what to expect. Our main focus is on everyone in the crowd having as good of a time as possible.

JAMBANDS: Kenny, neither mandolin nor human beatbox are exactly the most common instruments for a rock musician. Tell me a little about your history with both of them.

KENNY: I started beatboxing in elementary school. I used to be hyper and get in trouble in all my classes for making funny noises. I loved the Fat Boys and I used to wish that I was fat so I could sound like them. I was beatboxing all day, without even really realizing what I was doing, It became a habit. Years later, while farming in Hawaii, I refined my style while I was doing farm labor. It was around the same time that I was given my first mandolin by my good friend Danny Rose, while visiting Vermont. Although I had never even heard any Mandolin music, I learned how to play it by jamming with friends, all of whom are very creative musicians. When I moved home to Baltimore in 2000, I rejoined an old friendship with Cris Jacobs, who helped me execute my musical ideas.

JAMBANDS: Since mandolin and human beatbox are unique instruments in their own right, can you tell me about your influences in regard to both of them?

KENNY: I love music so much and have such a respect for all musicians that it is hard to list my influences. I have taken the essence of so many different artists and used it to develop my own style. I was never heavy into any particular mandolin player. I've just tried to be honest and express myself. I began to experiment with different effects. I decided on an organ sound because it filled a musical gap in the Bridge. As far as beatboxers go, there are many talented underground beatboxers out there that no one has heard of. Many of whom I was fortunate enough to hear at the 2004 International Beatbox Convention. I had the opportunity to collaborate with two of my favorite beatboxers, Kenny Muhammed and Shodekeh.

JAMBANDS: Ryan, in addition to being the bassist, you do double-duty as the manager. A band member managing the band is certainly not unheard of. There are even some really successful bands that continued to do it after their success both Pavement and Blind Boys of Alabama come to mind. Talk a little bit about your role as manager. How and why did that happen? Is it a role you plan on keeping or is it just out of necessity for now? Did you have any other band management experience prior or did you just sort of take it on by default?

RYAN: Ever since my first band in high school I kind of just took the initiative and started booking gigs. This lead to me being the person in the band doing all of the business side of things, and eventually to being the manager. I managed my band in college called Good Question. We toured quite a bit on the west coast so I gained a pretty solid foundation of contacts and strong understanding for managing a band. When the Bridge began to come together I was just the logical person to fill the role. Honestly, I like and dislike being the manager of the band. I like knowing what's going on and it's a good feeling that the guys trust me enough to do it all. On the other hand, it would be nice just to concentrate on the music for once. I will probably remain the manager until it gets too much for me to deal with or until we find someone whom we trust and respect enough to takeover.

JAMBANDS: Let’s talk about the residency you have at the Funk Box. Also, if you can, include anything about your relationship with Walther Productions.

RYAN: The Funk Box Residency is about the best possible thing in the world for us right now. We have so much freedom to take chances and play new songs. Our fans in Baltimore are the greatest and they come and support us every Wednesday night. In return we try to make each night different by trying new songs, experimenting with new transitions and just pushing ourselves as far as we possibly can. We also lined up a bunch of great opening acts to keep each night different. Not only do theses bands inspire us each night, but most of them have been sitting in with us and adding a whole new element to our music.

Walther Productions has been supporting us from the very start. They have been very helpful in developing the band in Baltimore and the surrounding areas. It is rare that you find people that really believe in the scene and want to help local bands make a name for themselves, but Tim and Junipa really go over and above for us. They have given us some of our best opportunities and we are extremely grateful.

JAMBANDS: Talk a little bit about being a Baltimore band. Do you feel a certain connection to the city? Baltimore is often thought of as a brazen music town, partially because there are so few local bands that make it out of there and partially because there are so few music venues. Do you agree with that?

RYAN: We love Baltimore!!! We would not leave here for anything!! Our fans in Baltimore have gotten us this far and we hope to have them by our side till the very end. We feel so lucky to have a group of people who are so willing to hear new music and have a good time. Other bands that come and open for us always comment on how great our fans are and we realize that we would be nothing without them.

I also believe that the opening of the Funk Box has definitely helped to put the Baltimore scene back on the map. Lots of great national bands are coming through and some great local bands finally have a good sized, and well-run venue to make music. I really believe that you will be seeing a lot of great bands out of Baltimore in the coming years.

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