Honey Bee from the album Blind Mans Hill
Thematically, there's an awful lot of booze in the colorful lyrics of the Bridge's Blind Man's Hill — slangy references to white lightnin', whiskey, and cold gin, sung in authentically raspy/slightly hungover voices. Musically, however, the young Baltimore six-piece sounds as tight as a full cask of bourbon from track to track.
"It's more playful than it is sorrowful or heavy," chuckles lead singer and guitarist Cris Jacobs. "We've noticed that, too. I think it was just the randomness of the tunes that were coming out. We're not big boozers ... not to say that there wasn't a bottle of whiskey laying around that came in handy from time to time."
Over the last three years, The Bridge has regularly visited Charleston and steadily earned a loyal following thanks to their boisterous shows. This year, leading up to the recent release of Blind Man's Hill on Hyena Records, the band toured with Mike Gordon and Moe, performed at numerous festivals (Gathering of the Vibes, All Good, Camp Bisco, and Moe Down), and established itself as a staple of the East Coast Homegrown/jam scene.
Due to the effects of Tropical Storm Hannah in early September, the group's previously scheduled show at the Pour House was cancelled at the last minute. This Friday's "make-up gig" is the band's first show in town since the release of the new record.
"We are on the perpetual tour, you could say," says Jacobs. "I prefer playing live to working in the studio. I think I'm better at it. The studio can be stifling sometimes. You can get to the point where you don't even feel like there's anything musical coming out. I don't consider myself a veteran at studio work by any means, but I'm getting a little better at it as I gain experience — not just with playing my parts, but going into it with the right frame of mind.
"It is nice to do things in the studio that show off the subtleties that might not come through in a live show," he adds. "But I still prefer playing live."
The 30-year-old songwriter splits his instrumental duties between acoustic and electric guitars, lap steel, and dobro. He and co-songwriter/mandolinist Kenny Liner originally formed the band as an acoustic duo and gradually built it into a fully orchestrated rock band. The current Bridge lineup features bassist Dave Markowitz, sax player Patrick Rainey, drummer Mike Gambone, and keyboardist Mark Brown. They recorded most of the songs on Blind Man's Hill without trying them out on the road beforehand. According to Jacobs, it was a healthy collective effort.
"It's kind of been the trademark of the band since day one to mix all the elements together into our own blend," says Jacobs. "When we started out, it was just me and Kenny. Then we electrified it and filled it out. We were even more confused back then than we are now. As we wrote our own songs, we made musical statements, no matter if it was a bluegrass-based song or a funk-based song. We had the sax and the mandolin and all of it and made it work. Now, especially with the additional keyboards, everything has its own timbre and voice, and we really made a conscience effort on this record to piece everything together without having things step on each other."
Each song on Blind Man's Hill veers unexpectedly in different directions. But each musician's ability to guide their instruments is unquestionable. With a soul-rock foundation rooted in country-blues, there's no shortage of southern boogie, folk, and bluegrass in the musical gumbo. Jacob's impressively warm and expressive singing floats over the top of the sophisticated rhythms and arrangements — some of which are complex.
With an impressive range of grooves and vocal stylings, there are as many elements of Taj Mahal, Otis Redding, and Townes Van Zandt within the band's sound as there are from the Meters, Little Feat, or the Nevilles. The cool and straightforward acoustic-guitar rollick of "Let Me Off This Train" is upbeat while "Old White Lightning 95" is a slower-moving, slinky booze-funk number (Jacobs mentions that "people come a'running from the Carolina border" for the moonshine). "Dirtball Blues" is a rapid-fire bluegrass/rocker that demonstrates Liner's pickin' skills. However, the New Orleans-syncopated lead-off track "Honey Bee" is the best example of their rhythmic and emotive dexterity.
"That first tune's got a really cool rhythm," says Jacobs. "Mike is a great musical drummer. He's very subtle and tasteful. I remember when I brought that tune to the band, he and the bass player took it and worked up that funky groove that pops in unexpectedly."
"I think our personalities come out in the music and the performance," Jacobs adds. "We're all pretty down-to-earth guys, and none of us are in to showboat or be flashy. We're into trying to entertain people and we have been from the beginning. Musically, Kenny and I came from the classic soulful stuff; that's our inspiration for music. We're really just trying to convey a certain kind of feel."