The Bridge, Rams Head Live, Baltimore, MD 11/23
Photo by Marc Shapiro
“Thank You for a Real Good Time”
If you missed an opportunity to see powerhouse sextet, The Bridge, tear the roof off a club in the last ten years, I’m sorry to tell you, the train has left the station. The band played their final concert last week at Rams Head Live in Baltimore. A yearly tradition, The Bridge’s Thanksgiving eve shows have spanned the band’s ten year career, this most recent occasion bringing us full circle, to the end of the journey.
While the Bridge’s decision to disband shy of mainstream success may say a lot about the state of the larger industry, they managed to carve out their own place in jamband world. A family atmosphere surrounds this band, as well as the holiday, and I saw many familiar faces last Wednesday, as we were all brought together under one roof for one final celebration of a band that has weathered several line-up changes over the years but always remained true to its roots. The night promised to feature members past and present, and when all was said and done they’d played four hours of music: 32 songs.
The sneaky half-step decent of Kenny Liner’s mandolin on Pakalolo, a song from the band’s self-titled debut album kicked off the night and was followed with a surprise cover of Shakedown Street. The crowd joined along with the celebratory “woo’s” that punctuate the Dead classic, which was followed by Brother Don’t and then Chains, an original that inspires similar audience participation. Like Phish’s secret language, this sort of bond between audience and band was part of what made The Bridge experience special. The first set featured several other tunes from their vault, at least four of them expertly strung together by drummer, Mike Gambone, in a medley that culminated in the original, Firing Line, featuring a monster guitar solo by Cris Jacobs.
Is it just instrumentation and arrangement, just the bed of organ and a whaling saxophone behind that telecaster? Or is it something more elusive – something like chemistry? I don’t know, but the heights that these six guys could achieve together were transporting. The Bridge’s live jamming has always been dynamic, building from dark mellow spaces to bright hard-rocking crescendos like pros. It was awesome to be able to witness the evolution of a band in one night (and I imaged for them it was kind of like having your life flash before your eyes). You could really see the progression – from a party band playing funked-up compositions, mixing and matching influences from blues to fusion – to the honed and thoughtfully structured songs that came to define their final two albums.
On a night that started promptly at 9pm and promised three sets, I felt that pacing my drinking was the right idea. The fact that an exhausted fan was hauled off the floor during the first set only reinforced this idea of moderation. However, co-frontman, Kenny Liner, who was emcee for the evening, led the packed house in more than one toast — to “old heads,” to “family,” to “new beginnings” and “best friends.” The fact that Kenny was conducting these toasts with a fifth of whiskey in his hand made me unsure about where this night might be headed, but lucky for me, at this venue there is always a bartender close by, so I was never lacking for a glass to raise. And why not? None of us had to work the next day. As far as I knew.
The second set opened with two from their current and final release: the hard hitting, Big Wheel, followed by the New Orleans flavored, Geraldine. In an earlier essay, I compared The Bridge to The Band, so I was happy they decided to carry out this farewell concert in true Last Waltz fashion. Throughout the evening they were joined by the ghosts of line-ups past, many of the friends and musicians who had collaborated with them over the years. They performed two very early compositions with the original bassist and drummer. Then for one off the current release, Sanctuary, they brought out Chris Bentley, producer and former sax player, to lay down some dirty feedback on guitar – similar to what you hear on the recorded version of this song. They were also joined by fiddler, Patrick McAvinue and Ed Hough on acoustic guitar for some more bluegrass/country inspired tunes, leading up to Colorado Motel, which would have been the last song of the second set. But Set II eventually turned into Set III when the band realized they had more material than they did time to play it all – and they wanted to get to everything.
This was not only the celebration of a band or of a scene but also sort of a farewell party for Kenny Liner, who is not only leaving the stage, but the state – as he plans to relocate out west. Kenny can work a room, has the kind of presence on stage that whips people into a frenzy, and he seems to have the same effect on band members, egging them on during solos, drawing it out of them. He’s also an impressive beatboxer – not just “for a white guy” impressive, but Bobby McFerrin impressive. He can mimic synthesizers with his voice and layer a melody over a beat, and so he introduced the “last ever” performance of the original, Drop the Beat, with a poppin’ a cappella mouth jam that teased “Axel F.”
By the end of the night Kenny’s fifth of Jack had become more of a prop – he was using it as a percussion instrument. But during the band’s fast-driving boogie, Rosie, and with his parents watching on from chairs set up just behind the band, Kenny checked stage diving off his bucket list as he launched into the audience for a ride around the room.
You only live once.
Many of The Bridge’s songs are rooted in place, and it was fitting that one of the final songs the band played was Liner’s Bury My Bones in Baltimore, which may be the only jamband song to reference Ray Lewis while simultaneously conjuring images of Baltimore’s waterfront. Lewis was invoked more than once that night, which was fitting for such a homegrown band – Baltimore is a football town, and for the smaller community of live music fans, The Bridge was our other home team.
Toward the end of the night, eight members of the audience near the front of the stage held up hand-lettered signs that spelled out “Thank You.” It was a touching moment, especially for Liner who accepted the “O” (which had been designed to match the Orioles logo) and promised to take it with him to Oregon.
The Bridge’s Last Waltz was a celebration to remember. While I’d imagined they might one day become a household name, I’ve accepted that by fate or design that is not their destiny. Fans and bands who thought the same are left wondering if they shouldn’t redefine their notions of success. What does it mean to make it, anyway? The Bridge has already transitioned into new projects that will continue to flourish, and in the end, love of family and friends are all that really matter. The Bridge definitely had that.