How do we determine what makes an album classic? Classic is defined as being judged over a time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind. Baltimore’s The Bridge decade-long run came to end in 2011, but before they called it quits they left us with this Steve Berlin-produced masterpiece that is the perfect culmination of their years on the road crisscrossing America. It is the sound of America, as written through the window of the van that carried the band across the country for ten years, buoyed by the band’s mix of soulful guitar, deep sax-grooves, and chugging, down-home mandolin. It was an album that was an instant classic, but unfortunately never got the life it deserved due to the sudden dissolution of the band. While not as well known as other classic albums, ‘National Bohemian’ it is no less vital or important.
Heading into the recording of ‘National Bohemian’ The Bridge were riding high. They were playing nearly 200-hundred shows a year, had played across Europe, and were part of some of the biggest festivals across the United States including Bonnaroo, DelFest, JamCruise, Wakarusa, and All-Good. As they prepared to record their fifth album in 2010, it seemed as if it would serve as a validation of their arrival as one of the premiere Americana-roots bands in the U.S., but just as the album was being released the band called it quits. It was an amicable separation mostly due to new families and changing lives, and found the band members finding new musical endeavors. The end of the Bridge also launched the career of singer and guitarist Cris Jacobs, who Rolling Stone listed as one of the Ten New Country Artists You Need to Hear in 2017, comparing him to Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and Ray LaMontange, calling him “Outlaw swagger, meets blue-eyed soul. But before that, Jacobs and The Bridge left us with their swan song classic-masterpiece, ‘National Bohemian’.
Prior to recording the album the band made a short list of producers they wanted to work with that started and ended with Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin. For a band that had been favorably compared to Los Lobos over the years, and their similar reliance on Americana roots-rock, the pairing would prove to be perfect. Berlin forced the band to reevaluate their approach to making music and to think outside of the comfortable box they had long worked in. Whereas before they often used existing references to guide their sound, Berlin pushed them to think and record like no one had ever done before.
The actual recording process of ‘National Bohemian’ was a complete 180-degree turn from their last album, ‘Blind Man’s Hill’, an album they labored over every take – a process Jacobs’ called, “one guy sitting in a room with six other guys telling him, ‘no, yes, no, yes, do that.’” This time around they trusted their talents as a band and followed Berlin’s encouragement to play live as a group which was something they did not always do in the past.
On ‘National Bohemian’ they used many first takes, relying on the power of the band and the strength of the moment, trying to capture moments like they found at their live shows. For a band that had built its career on its live show, it was a revelatory moment that produced electrifying results. The band did not worry about finding pure perfection, but instead searching for pure emotion and feeling. During one of Jacobs’ solos for ‘Hey Mama’, Berlin told him, “That’s good, but let’s do it again way dirtier.” During the recording of ‘Rosie’, Jacobs’ voice cracked slightly, but instead of preparing for another take, Berlin told him, “That’s so wrong, but it is so right.” At first Jacobs was a bit surprised by the idea of keeping the take, but the beauty of the moment won him over.
The band were more adventurous with their sound during the recording process, taking chances that did not seem possible before. They threw off the comfortable shackles of how they had worked before and instead approached each song with a new, experimenting eye. Berlin got the ball rolling, suggesting different instrument set-ups or finding radically different ways to coax out some brand new sound. This experimentation included finding whatever or wherever they could find the sound they were looking for. One time they used an old film projector amp cranked up, in another Jacobs laid down outside on the street with a microphone in hand and sang while cars went whizzing by. For drummer Mike Gambone it meant stepping outside his normal realm. At times he played with a handful of pocket change on his snare drum, or with an odd assortment of sticks, mallets, even a plastic dowel rod -sometimes at the same time in one hand – or with a menagerie of bells, shakers, or parts of other drums attached to his normal kit.
This go-for-broke, anything is possible approach served The Bridge well as they crafted an album that is far and away their best yet. All the elements that they became known for, a sound born in the backwoods and the mountains, but raised on the streets of New Orleans, intense guitar work courtesy of Jacobs, and heartfelt songwriting that is easily relatable, define ‘National Bohemian’. It is an album built as equally upon the intense, psychedelic freak-out of ‘Sanctuary’, or the high energy of ‘Rosie’, as it is the quiet beauty of ‘Dirt on my Hands’ or ‘Long Way to to Climb’. It is quite simply the perfect capstone to the band’s decade-long run.