The Bridge – National Bohemian
By S. Victor Aaron
One was a teenaged hippie hobo who once toiled at an organic farm in Maui, the other a finance grunt for a white-collar firm. But a shared desire to create and play music brought Kenny Liner and Cris Jacobs together from polar opposite worlds to form The Bridge. Liner, the mandolin player and Jacobs the guitar picker, gigged tirelessly, brought in a revolving cast of musicians and built up a following.
Eventually they had performed or toured with the likes of Little Feat, Derek Trucks, Trombone Shorty and Mike Gordon of Phish. Those acts rubbed off a bit on this Baltimore-based band; some above-average musicianship and their wildly diverse blend of roots rock, blues, soul, country and jazz got them pegged in the “jam band” pigeonhole—although there’s nothing’s wrong with being a jam band—but this was a band that was destined for a stronger identity.
With National Bohemian, they may have found it. All they needed was the right producer.
Liner and Jacobs eventually solidified the rest of the band: Dave Markowitz (bass, vocals), Patrick Rainey (saxophone), Mark Brown (keyboards) and Mike Gambone (drums) are all carried over from Blind Man’s Hill. With the lineup stabilized, they called upon multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin of Los Lobos to produce their third record. A sought-after producer whose prior projects included John Lee Hooker, Leo Kottke and Sheryl Crow, Berlin gave Liner and Jacobs the direction and the push to reach beyond their comfort zones. The Bridge went through a jazz-tinged funk/rock debut (2007), then pivoted toward country and blues (Blind Man’s Hill, 2008) before reaching the place chronicled on National Bohemian. Berlin took the best eleven of thirty songs submitted by the co-leaders, not really caring to pick them to fit a particular style, he just wanted the best songs. Seven turned out to be Jacobs songs (with a couple of Berlin co-writing credits) and the rest by Liner. The continuity in this album lies in Berlin’s consistently sharp production that roots-anchored but adds just enough 21st century touches to keep this from dwelling too much in the past that it can’t revel in the present.
“Sanctuary” introduces Jacobs’ deeply soulful Warren Haynes croon in a blues-feel tune but not quite the blues, and the jazz-strained vibes/sax lyric-less chorus goes against what convention calls for in the song. What emerges in the place of that convention is part of that Bridge Identity. It’s there in Liner’s subtly textured country of “Chavez” and the human beatbox that sends the organic hip-swaying funk of Jacobs’ “Big Wheel” on its way:
This ain’t Los Lobos East, but much of what made Lobos a great band are present on Bohemian, i.e., finding a lot of rich territory to mine within the realm of roots. “Moonlight Mission,” is a Liner-penned revenge song that pulls in some of the best elements from Nitty Gritty Dirty Band, Robert Randolph and Tom Waits. It also features Liner’s mandolin handiwork the best, and even the programmed rhythms and the odd synth solo can’t break the earthbound stride of this track. If anything, those modern touches lend to the ghastly mindset of the song. Then he follows up with the second-line light hearted smile inducing ditty of “Geraldine.” Following the genial country ballad of “Long Way To Climb,” Jacobs lunges headlong into raucous Little Feat backbeat rock ‘n’ roll with “Rosie”:
“Hey Mama” is Liner’s funk contribution, but it’s slow, sweet and greasy, and Liner’s come-on drawl portrays the mood perfectly. The last three numbers, all Jacobs songs, are more low-key, with the Subdudes-evoking country-soul of “Colorado Motel” the best of this batch.
These days, bands are lucky to have one good songwriter and one good lead singer; The Bridge has two great ones. Throw in a sympathetic producer like Steve Berlin in the mix and you have a standout record. A record like National Bohemian.
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