Admirable and arguably underappreciated is the local musician who’s become known across the country but is so multi-talented, enthusiastic and flexible as to wear a variety of hats to connect with hometown concertgoers in so many different ways.
Cris Jacobs emerged on the Baltimore circuit 20 years ago in the bluegrass group Smooth Kentucky — a squad that still performs locally — and he cut his teeth at a time the city was earning its reputation for having one of the nation’s very best music scenes. The leader of The Bridge, a beloved jam band blending a world of different sounds, Jacobs was right in the thick of it for a decade at the front of this colorful outfit, forging relationships near and far and all the while expanding his own influences.
So, Cris was well-armed when he set out on his solo career, an endeavor that saw him release the 2012 album Songs for Cats and Dogs under the name Cris Jacobs Band and then two more recently as Cris Jacobs, Dust to Gold in 2016 and Color Where You Are in 2019. An important and productive stretch, the past decade saw Cris — who also wields the acoustic, steel lap, and dobro — play alongside or tour as the opening act for a long list of noteworthy musicians, some he’s admired for many years. In 2017, he recorded an album with R&B star Ian Neville, Neville Jacobs.
Stream Cris Jacobs’ 2021 solo EP Live at Stages Music Arts, recorded in Cockeysville, via Spotify:
Today, Jacobs himself is on a rising trajectory and he stands tall as a provincial veteran and guiding light. One of Baltimore’s most accomplished, respected, and connected musical figures, he uses his growing network to not only find opportunities to make new music, but to bring it to the city that he loves and credits for giving him his footing as an artist — a city where he decidedly remained to foster his career, rather than follow the pack to places like Nashville or Los Angeles.
An anticipated annual tradition, Cris Jacobs & Friends took the stage this past Monday evening at The 8×10 in Federal Hill for the first of three sold-out nights of his recurring series of holiday gigs, A Very Jerry Christmas — homage to none other than Jerry Garcia, the late officer of the Grateful Dead.
And for this edition of his pre-Christmas celebration on Dec. 20, Cris assembled an extraordinary crew of good buddies to help him concoct not one but three gigs’ worth of Garcia and Dead tunes. He was joined by longtime The Bridge bass master Dave Markowitz, keyboard legend Mookie Siegel (a founding member of the Dave Nelson Band), and on drums Ed Hough, another local standout multi-instrumentalist.
In customary Dead fashion, the premiere posse delivered two thick sets of music, all hued with Cris’ impassioned, campestral vocals and each given a dynamic zing through abounding, agile, razor-sharp improvisation that the man himself would have likely embraced.
Watch the video for Cris Jacobs’ cover of the Grateful Dead song “Black Peter” via his official YouTube channel:
“He channels Jerry,” said one onlooker after twirling her way through the night’s opener, “Let It Rock,” a Garcia solo piece that let Cris rap with a rustic touch and use his strong mitts to yank gleefully frantic chords from his guitar and fuel an audience that was ready to boogie right out of the gate.
Phenomenal, polished versions of Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia classics came one after the other as Cris was deeply engaged with his bandmates, whom, though he might rarely see in the same room, were clearly thrilled to be on stage with him.
Another seasoned battle axe of a musician, Hough — who plays guitar and shares singing responsibilities alongside Cris as a member of Smooth Kentucky — shined with his own endearing voice, which, with a charming, aimed flatness, aptly channeled the unique sounds of the Dead’s bass player Phil Lesh as Ed led vocals on “Brown Eyed Women,” the first of several he’d steer.
With an unforgettable twist on the composition “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo,” Cris amplified his words and dug in to unleash a powerful, mind-bending guitar solo that didn’t just honor this original from the necessary 1973 album, Wake of the Flood, but somehow enhanced it.
“Give a hand to Mookie Seigel, who flew out to be with us for a couple days,” Jacobs said, passing the applause over to his mates as he would all night long with a warm smile curled behind his beard.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” responded Mookie, who’d float his tender notes to delightful effect over a sweeping version of “Bird Song” before helping texture a hotfooted take on “Evangeline,” a track that had both floors of the The 8×10 bouncing as Cris remarkably emulated Jerry’s intricate, ravishingly poppy motifs that can be heard in some live recordings of this song.
Watch Cris Jacobs’ incredible solo acoustic performance of his song “Talkin’ NRA Blues” via his official YouTube channel:
Midway through the first set brought a terrific serving of Jerry solo tracks with a dark, otherworldly “Loser,” with Cris breaking out his sunburst Stevie Ray Vaughan Fender Stratocaster, followed by a diverting, courageous “Deal,” where Ed’s voice added distinguishable depth and character.
Markowitz would get a chance to sing numerous times throughout the night, including on Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and more in the second set, but his focus on his primary responsibilities — using his hands to manufacture a riveting, rolling groove of varying speeds at any given moment — ensured the audience was moving for more than three hours.
Highlighted down the stretch by a miraculous “Jack Straw,” the first set felt like an entire show in itself, and it gave way to what would be an even faster, funkier second half of the night.
Leading through a vivacious series of Dead favorites in “China Cat Sunflower,” “I Know You Rider,” and “Althea,” Jacobs offered the fruits of what can only be many days of endless practice: incredibly accurate portrayals of Jerry Garcia’s role in these songs. In a swatting, brisk take on “Tangle Up In Blue,” another Dylan track often covered by the Dead, Jacobs’ playing was nothing short of world-class — extremely fast, crisp, biting, and, most importantly, impeccably timed.
Stream Cris Jacobs’ 2019 studio album Color Where You Are via Spotify:
“Thank you,” Cris said midway through the second set. “It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be here playing for you all. We’re going on nine years of doing these shows, so thank you to everyone who’s helped make them so special for us.”
Fans of Cris or fans of the Dead — or, more likely, fans of both — were dancing, arms flailing, from the stage all the way to the front door of the venue as Jacobs & Friends played on, delivering a rewarding, festive “New Speedway Boogie,” and a couple tracks later, an irresistible “Shakedown Street.”
Though there were two more nights ahead, Cris reiterated gratitude as the set reached its pinnacle, calling out praise for the venue staff, light and sound folks and, of course, his supporters, all of whom showed up masked in observation of recent COVID concerns and protocols.
“Thanks to you guys for being so cool and doing the right thing and making it fun for everybody,” he said just after a quixotic, enchanting “Stella Blue,” a song that might have seen him at his most immersed in the music, demonstrated by an epic, immaculate solo that even left his bandmates in awe.
Markowitz, shaking his head in disbelief, couldn’t any longer contain his respect and stepped to the mic: “Cris Jacobs everybody. How ‘bout this fuckin’ guy?”
It was a fitting assessment just before an appropriate cap on the night — an exuberant “Casey Jones” set closer and a return to the stage for an encore performance of the harmonious Jimmy Cliff hit “Harder They Come.”
Having honed gilt-edged skills as an instrumentalist and a noble stage presence, Cris Jacobs impressed and captivated on the first of three nights covering songs by Jerry Garcia or by musicians that the Dead legend adored.
Thanks to his undying love for his hometown and his adaptability as a musician, the local scene should continue to benefit from Cris and his desire to celebrate different styles of music with the people in his community.
Let It Rock
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo
Tom Thumb’s (Bob Dylan)
China Cat Sunflower>
I Know You Rider
Tangled Up In Blue (Bob Dylan)
New Speedway Boogie
Comes A Time
Harder They Come (Jimmy Cliff)
Here are images of Cris Jacobs, Dave Markowitz, Mookie Siegel, and Ed Hough performing at The 8×10 in Baltimore on Dec. 20, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.