Holiday gatherings transpired in all shapes and sizes over the past few weeks, but few might have warranted the buildup of the Charm City’s version of the annual tradition known as A Very Jerry Christmas.
A Yuletide bash honoring the late, great Jerry Garcia and all things Grateful Dead, it’s a series of shows hosted every year by Cris Jacobs, who has over the course of his career become one of Baltimore’s most influential and widely respected artists both as a singer-songwriter and by fronting numerous outfits that have showcased his dynamism as a musician.
Jacobs and a trusted crew of his longtime collaborators put on back-to-back, sold-out, festive jamborees at The 8×10 on Dec. 21 and 22, and though these men get together to play these songs only a few nights each year, the foursome served up a tribute that might be out of reach for even the most talented Dead cover bands on tour today.
The two-night affair started off Thursday evening before a Fed Hill venue packed with longtime fans of the Grateful Dead or Jerry himself along with dedicated locals who’ve seen Jacobs blossom by way of the bluegrass project Smooth Kentucky, watched him gain steam via the wildly popular jam operation The Bridge and more recently observed him coming into his own in front of the Cris Jacobs Band, where he shines as a blues-rock catalyst.
Listen to Cris Jacobs’ 2021′ live EP, Live at Stage Music Arts (in Cockeysville, Md.), via Spotify:
But anyone keeping up on him knows that Jacobs is prolific and steadfast, impressing the crowds at numerous festivals with completely different sets and joining a list of his friends for various appearances throughout the year to make his 2023 a productive and colorful one.
As he has been for these special end-of-year shows, Cris was accompanied by The Bridge bass guru Dave Markowitz, keyboard extraordinaire Mookie Siegel (a founding player in the Dave Nelson Band), and drummer Ed Hough, another seasoned veteran multi-instrumentalist who plays with Cris in different groups.
The longtime pals dazzled across two terrific sets, both loaded with Dead and Jerry classics and marked by incredible guitar solos from the leading man and delightful vocals from each member of the band. Just the four humans, they captivated with a mind-bending semblance that might be thought impossible without a larger roster and additional instruments like those utilized by the Dead themselves.
Each set was packed with favorites, and by the time fans had heard a rewarding, groovy take on Jimmy Cliff’s “Harder They Come” and an epic and seamless “Help On The Way > Slipknot > Cumberland Blues > Franklin’s Tower,” the Cross Street venue had transformed to full-on celebration, with patrons boogying, shaking, and shouting on both levels.
“Cheers to another Jerry Christmas,” Cris raised a drink and was met by hoots, hollers, and ho-ho-hos.
Jacobs in his day has shared the stage with a bevy of talented folks, but he expressed to The 8×10 audience on Night 1 just how much it meant to him be in the company of these gentlemen for such a special occasion.
“I love these guys very much,” were Cris’ warm words. “These are my best friends in the world.”
Watch Cris Jacobs’ performing “Long Distance Call” with Smooth Kentucky at the inaugural Annapolis Baygrass Music Festival held in October via YouTube:
Attendees admired the group throughout the second set, with Jacobs continuing to pull an astounding sound out of his guitar and each player again getting time to shine on the mic through an eclectic selection of Dead tunes or those often covered by the famous rock group formed in Palo Alto back in 1965.
“This is our favorite time of year,” Jacobs said of the turn-of-the-season gathering, which is now believed to be in its eleventh year, though memories and public records seem to be unclear on when it began.
Either way, Cris pointed out: “It’s a time to spread love and good vibes and enjoy holiday cheer.”
After encoring with the Jerry Garcia Band favorite “My Sisters and Brothers,” Cris and company bid the audience farewell, but they got only so far.
Abigail Janssens, who owns The 8×10 along with Brian Shupe, made her way onto the stage. Imploring the room to a higher volume, she helped convince the group to return for yet a second encore: a glorified take on the classic kaleidoscopic pairing of “China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider.”
Though this winter anniversary aptly pays respects to Garcia, who left the world far too soon in 1995, it’s also become a marvelous and merry showcase of one of the area’s very best and most thoughtful creators, one who continues to grow his resume and his influence each year.
Revisit Cris Jacobs’ 2019 studio album, Color Where You Are, via Spotify:
Harder They Come (Jimmy Cliff)
Help On The Way>
Comes A Time
Don’t Let Go
Get Out of My Life Woman
Mission In the Rain
Run for the Roses
Waiting for a Miracle
Sisters and Brothers
China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider
Here are dark but home-developed, home-scanned 35mm film photographs of Cris Jacobs and friends performing at The 8×10 in Baltimore the night of Dec. 21, 2023. All shots copyright and courtesy of Casey Ryan Vock.