Here's the thing about Cris Jacobs-he doesn't play to the crowd. Which isn't to say that Jacobs doesn't appreciate his fans or pick his guitar with more vigor after each whoop from an animated throng.
"There's nothing that beats an enthusiastic crowd," says Jacobs. "It makes me feel better, it makes me play better, and it makes the music have more energy."
But when Jacobs takes the stage in Hampden's Roosevelt Park in July, three-string cigar-box guitar propped on his lap, he closes his eyes. And as he pulls out of a power chord, head shaking like a tree limb in a derecho, he twists his seated body, sending another musician into a plucky solo, and starts in on his own whooping.
"Back in the younger days, I think I would get wrapped up in the crowd much more than with the music," he says. "All of a sudden I wouldn't even realize what I was playing because I was staring at the crowd or too hung up on who was there."
Jacobs is talking, of course, about his days with well-known local alt-rock band the Bridge, the group he fronted for nearly a decade before its breakup last fall. Since then, Jacobs has become more of an impromptu conductor during live shows, cuing bandmates when he's not contorting his bearded face during gravelly solos that could restore a John Lee Hooker fan's faith in contemporary music.
His stage presence isn't the only thing to have been reinvented. In the year since the Bridge disbanded, Jacobs has tweaked his sound with a new eponymous five-piece, which released its debut album, Songs for Cats and Dogs, this summer. While the Cris Jacobs Band shares certain features with the Bridge-including former Bridge drummer Mike Gambone-the music has a more Americana-roots feel than Bridge albums, like National Bohemian, which Jacobs describes as more suited to a "dance or party crowd."
"When the Bridge broke up I was just really excited to be able to play things and write things that were different," he says. "It's not like I was consciously saying, 'I want to be as different as possible.' . . . Maybe as sort of an inner protest, when I was finished with the Bridge, I decided I was going to write some stuff that's not like that."
The strength of Jacobs' new band is its ability to blend genres without positioning itself into one set genre. It's country, but not of the Toby Keith, boot-in-your-ass variety; bluesy with the sensibilities of Stevie Ray Vaughan; and roots rock in the manner of William Elliott Whitmore. The benefit, Jacobs says, is that the Cris Jacobs Band can vacillate between playing lighter-sounding songs, like "Be My Stars," and tunes that rely on the prowess of a string-bending, moaning guitar solo, like "Stoned On You."
"There was music in me that hadn't found its way to come out with any of the projects I was involved in," Jacobs says. "I was never really able to express it before."
The formula appears to be working. In June the Cris Jacobs Band spent every Thursday night in residency at the 8x10. (It'll do the same in October.) Jacobs' crew played August's First Thursday in Mount Vernon and will open up this year's Hot August Blues Festival. But the band's crowning achievement was a slot at the All Good Festival in July, where the Bridge also played a set.
"There was no bad breakup or anything, so it was a chance to play where it's a fun thing like that," he says. And the experience said a lot about Jacobs' evolution: The frenzy of 18,000 people hollering and drinking during a set by the Bridge on a Saturday night is decidedly different than an early Sunday afternoon show by the Cris Jacobs Band. For Jacobs, these different experiences are illustrative of the beauty of switching musical directions.
"I've always prided myself on not pigeonholing myself into one style and just enjoying and absorbing the music that comes to me," he says. "It's sort of a blessing and a curse-it leaves such an open palette."
Jacobs is sure there will be fans of the Bridge who aren't into the Cris Jacobs Band. But it doesn't matter. Not to him. He postures now for his fellow musicians.
Cris Jacobs band plays hot august blues and roots festival aug. 18 at 12 p.m. for more information, visit hotaugustblues.com