Jacob Miller and the Bridge City Crooners

Hello Dig Nation, and good morning from the West Coast in beautiful Portland Oregon. It feels good to be back after taking some time off to pack up my life and schlep my humble belongings across this big nation of ours. Since we last convened I ate cheese and drank beer in Milwaukee WI, hiked the flatirons in Boulder CO, hung with some old school lounge lizards in Las Vegas NV, dipped my toes in the stoic waters that run through Yosemite National Park, ran along the coast line in the pseudo-summer that is San Francisco in June, and high fived giant Redwood trees on northbound highway 101 all the way up the California coast before arriving at my new home in Portland. Now that it's all said in done I can boast that I saw 21 of the continental 48 states in under two months and I'm pleased to say that taking in American all at once like that truly is everything Jack Kerouac promised me it would be. Regardless, the blogosphere waits for no man and there is business to attend to so let's get back to work.

Jacob Miller and the Bridge City Crooners have been a recent staple of the PDX music scene and were my first order of business in live music here. I had the pleasure of taking in the ragtime revival group at the Portland International Beer Fest over the weekend where they played not one, but two sets over the course of the weekend long party in the Pearl District. It was also a landmark weekend for Jacob Miller and the fellas because they celebrated the release of their first full length album on Friday July 19th. Just in case you haven't seen my previous post on the Crooners allow me to reintroduce the band. The Crooners are: Jacob Miller on guitar,vocals, and kazoo. Ben Bailey on washboard, snare, and vocals, Kyle Neumann on harmonica, tenor banjo, and dobro, and finally, Mike Team on the upright bass. Additionally, Max Ribner makes an appearance on both flugelhorn and trumpet, and Libby Barthuly shares her talents on vocals and the musical saw.

The self-titled nine track album picks up right where the boys left off with their last EP, East Side Drag. The albums opens with the up tempo feel good travelogue track Gotta Keep Keepin' On that would have been a perfect addition to my own recent coast to coast playlist. Following this is a slower more contemplative song Miss'ippi which gives the listener a more exposed look at the band and the subtly of their musical talent. Front and center is of course Jacob Miller who leads the ensemble with a slick tenor voice and a quick warble vibrato, but furthermore, his polyphonic hands fill out the harmonies with melodies and arpeggios on his National NRP 14 Fret Steel resonator guitar. Interjecting in and around this work is the harmonica of Kyle Neumann. As the lead instrumentalist the role of the harmonica is to provide fills which close melodic phrases, round out the song form, and bring the band to their musical boiling point during instrumental solos. Kle Neumann does all of this and more with artistry and panache as he toes the line between accompaniment and lead with his well equipped arsenal of harps. 

Behind all of this is the washboard work of Mr. Ben Bailey who's talent is best captured one gesture at a time. For example, at 50 seconds into Doggin' you hear a soft washboard drum roll backed by syncopated percussive hits. On a typical drum set this would be a very large gesture that would give the musician the luxury of their whole arms range of motion. However, in this instance Ben is using just two fingers for the roll his open opposite palm for the hits. In the right hands, the washboard is an incredibly multifaceted instrument capable of a wide range of textures and rhythms and Ben Bailey does just this. Later, on the cut Goodbye Blues, the band takes a cue from Ray Charles in what sounds like a re-imagined version of the immortal song Georgia. Regardless, this piece provides the listener a glimpse into the wonderful work of Max Ribner on brass whose note choice and back of the beat phrasing make him the stand out feature of the song. Furthermore, Goodbye Blues gives Mike Team a chance to break out front and take a rare solo at 3:40 of the track. As a whole, Team's playing is remarkable. He is like the tuba player in a great symphonic orchestra; at first glance it's easy to overlook their good work, but the strength of the ensemble is always supported by their efforts and are therefore essential to the success of the whole. Nevertheless, one of the my favorite tracks on this album is the closer, Home (When Shadows Fall). The song's easy tempo takes me to a place somewhere between Glen Miller, and Norah Jones' first album. The addition of Libby Barthuly's vocal harmony and musical saw hits that rare place between sentimentality, musicianship, and kitsch. It might not be a location where everyone wants to live, but trust me, it is a place where every music fan wants to visit. So do yourself a favor and take a moment to enjoy the track, the album, and then any number of the live shows these guys have coming up in the greater PDX area. You dig?

Stay in touch with the band via their Official Webpage, Facebook, Twitter, and Bandcamp, and don't forget to check out Jacob Miller and the Bridge City Crooners at the Timber! Music Festival in August.