By: Tim Newby
Photos By: Sam Friedman
“You have to baby pick it,” says producer Chris Bentley.
“I thought I was,” the voice of Kenny Liner, mandolinst for the Bridge, comes over the speakers in the control room. The frustration is clear in his voice.
It is an unseasonably hot day in late March, but The Bridge – as they have most of the month – is holed up at the bottom of a non-descript white building located just outside the Baltimore City limits in Cockeysville, Maryland. The building houses Bunker Recording Studio, the band’s studio of choice and where they have recorded all of their previous albums and are currently working on their new album, Blind Man’s Hill, due out October 21.
The band has been in the studio for much of the day and Liner has been working on a solo for the bridge of his new tune, “Born Ramblin’” for the last hour or so and things have gone smoother for the mandolinst.
“Just barely play it,” suggests guitarist Cris Jacobs. Jacobs is huddled by the sound board with Bentley and the two are talking Liner through his solo. Bentley is in the extended Bridge family; he was the band’s first sax player and has helped produce all of their previous albums. His long and unique relationship with the band allows him more input than most producers enjoy. For The Bridge this provides a much appreciated voice in the studio, “Bentley is good at calling bullshit and telling us what is good or bad,” Liner says, “His opinion is so well respected with us. We all have thousands of ideas of how to do things, but you can only do one of them. It is good to have a policeman in the studio to help make decisions.”
I am sitting on a couch at the back of the room, talking with bassist Dave Markowitz. He does not seem to be paying attention to what is happening in the studio until he leans forward and looks up from the audio gear magazine he has been flipping through to provide Liner some spot-on advice.
Liner listens. With the frustration mounting in his voice he says, “Ok, let’s try it again.”
A few minutes later Liner emerges from the studio with a huge smile of relief on his face. Despite the lengthy take, he completed a solo that has helped to give the simple tune a whole new facelift. Eight months previous, the song was debuted before a packed house during the midst of the band’s summer residency at the 8×10 Club. On a typically hot, humid, Baltimore night, in between swigs off a Jack Daniels bottle, Liner huddled with the rest of the band on stage, before announcing, “I just wrote this last week and we just decided to play it right now.”
At that time it was a simple sketch of a song with Liner singing about “sleeping in his shoes” and the rest of the band trying to find their way through it. Since then, it has grown by leaps and bounds, evolving from that early basic arrangement, to something much deeper over the months, and now as they finish up the song in the studio, it has become a mature statement of Liner as a songwriter. The finishing touch to it would come momentarily as Jacobs grabbed his guitar and headed into the studio to complete his final solo for the song. He looked at the clock on his way in and declared, “I will nail it in thirty minutes.” Not quite forty minutes later, Jacobs completed the final piece to the puzzle that started eight months ago. His solo was a complicated movement full of open notes and fuzzy tones, and seemed to completely turn itself around midway through. As smiles spread through the control room, Jacobs’s voice came over the speakers giving credit to an unlikely source for his solo. “You can thank Brad Paisley for that.”
For Liner it was the perfect conclusion to the song he had penned the year before, “I am real happy with how ‘Born Ramblin’ turned out. I wrote that song in a humorous way, all those stories in it are true. It is a very personal song. It is me laughing at myself. The band did a great job of seeing my vision through.”
“Born Ramblin’” is one of only four songs (out of twelve) from Blind Man’s Hill that had been written and played live before recording started for the new album (“Bury My Bones in Baltimore,” “Heavy Water,” and “Dirtball Blues” being the others). This was a drastic change from albums past in which the band simply took the best songs they had been playing live and recorded them. The impact of this was not lost on Jacobs. “More than half the tunes were new when we started recording them, so we didn’t have any time to road test them. It forced us to keep it simple, which is always good. It allowed us to arrange things as we went along. We may play them a bit different live now, but it is a cool snapshot of the song at its inception.” Markowitz agrees adding, “It was fitting for these songs. The nature of how they feel, how they sounded when they were initially brought in by Kenny and Cris. Some of these tunes sound good raw, with a bit of an edge to them.”
The album feels more connected than any of their other releases as the majority of the songs were written at the same time. “I think this album more than the last had a concept when we were putting the songs together. There was a clear goal as to what we wanted it to sound like,” Liner explains. “This time there is a story underneath where all the parts fit together. Once it is done it will flow very nicely and be an actual album that will make sense from beginning to end.” For Bentley it was something much easier, “They were much more pointed and directed from the beginning this time. Last time they were pretty exploratory. This time they wanted it to be pretty much what they can do live.” The band also eschewed much of the modern day production ideas that have been dominating albums recently. Instead they opted for what Liner called a “minimalist approach”, that resulted in an album that was, “simply a throwback.”
Another change this time around was the input of drummer Mike Gambone, saxophonist Patrick Rainey, and the addition of keyboardist Mark Brown. On their last album Gambone and Rainey had just joined the band and were not around for much of the process. Jacobs happily admitted that this time everyone was able to really step up and establish their own parts. For Rainey, who had joined the band just after they started recording their last album, it was a very positive experience “Last time I was only around for two songs. This time I was there for the whole process from tracking drums and bass, to scratch tracks, to putting the final touches on it. It was nice to have my opinions be heard. It was great to play on the record this time and to be able to write parts for it,” he pauses and smiles before finishing, “being involved was real important to me.”
Although the addition of Brown and the input of Gambone and Rainey helped to solidify the band’s sound, Liner and Jacobs still serve as the primary songwriters. Most songs start with that simple formula; recording a basic track that has the vocal with either guitar or mandolin strumming the rhythm. For a song to truly take life it has to be able to stand alone as nothing more than a voice and guitar and the songs the two songwriters brought to the band were something special. “Everything comes out of that (the vocal and the melody),” Liner says as he describes the birth of the new album, “You can get such a good feel for the song, even an electric song by Cris, by just hearing him sing with an acoustic guitar. Mike and Dave then work off his inflections and rhythms to build the dynamics of the song.”
With the majority of the songs having never been played live before recording started, the band was able to grow them in the studio as opposed to under the intense glare and scrutiny of a live crowd. Gambone saw this method as a double edged sword, “We recorded most of the tunes in their infancy, so there are many things I do differently now. A part of me wished I could go back and re-record my drum parts, but I guess not having that luxury could work to our advantage. When people see us live, they are going to hear how much the songs have evolved and it will be new and fresh. Essentially that should always be the goal.”
The result is an album that fully recognizes who The Bridge is as a band today; a reflection of not just the individuals, but more importantly what they become when they play music together. In the past The Bridge has been described by listing all the various musical genres the band refers to in their music, simply calling their music an amalgam of styles. It is a description and a word that Jacobs has on more than one occasion admitted to detesting. It is also a lazy way to describe the music of the Bridge. Blind Man’s Hill is a look at the soul of American music, or what Liner calls, “our barebones take on Americana.” Simply put Blind Man’s Hill is straight up rock ‘n’ roll with an old time soul and a heart burned with the sound of the spooky blues played with a pair of big balls. Or as Rainey says, “It’s a barnburner.”
Blind Man’s Hill showcases a depth and emotion that has been hinted at, but never sustained for an entire album. From the deep swirling passion of “Devil on Me”, to the straight up blues romp of “Poison Wine”, to the joyous jam-friendly gospel infused “Heavy Water,” Blind Man’s Hill is an emotional journey through the sound of a band that is just starting to realize its full potential. That emotion comes to a head on the closing song, which is a unanimous favorite of the band. “Lasting Hymn”, is a gentle acoustic affair that appropriately gets back to that simple formula of the band’s two songwriters, with only Liner and his mandolin and Jacobs voice and guitar gracing the track. For the rest of the band there is no question about the power of the song. Markowitz admits, “I am not even on the track and I can say it is my favorite song. It is just something very different than has been on a Bridge album before.” But the real power of the songs comes from the emotion with which Jacobs delivers the deeply introspective lyrics. “Cris just sings the hell out of it”, Gambone says. The song is deeply personal for Jacobs, and when pressed to explain the meaning he is naturally hesitant to discuss it. He starts to explain, “I don’t feel like I can do it justice…,” he then pauses and tries to search for the right words, and as the silence builds his longtime friend Liner speaks up and sums it up in a few words that say more than enough, “I played it for a few friends and they got goose bumps.”
Almost a year to the day after “Born Ramblin’” first debuted, The Bridge is back on stage at the 8×10. After a summer spent on the road travelling and touring in Europe for the first time, playing with Phish’s Mike Gordon at the All Good Music Festival and opening for him on his East Coast tour, it is evident the band is glad to be back at home and it shows as they play with a relaxed confidence. Midway through their set they break into “Born Ramblin’,” a year ago a new tune that a drunken Liner warbled his way through, now a steady part of their rotation, a pure crowd favorite. As they break into the solo that had given Liner so much trouble in the studio, I spot producer Bentley leaning against the wall in front of the soundboard. I sidle up next to him and ask if he still hears things within that solo he wishes he could fix right now.
The producer just smiles and answers, “Now? Nothing to do now, but just enjoy it.”