For the hometown album release show of the poignant, blues-tinged “Dust to Gold,” Cris Jacobs wanted to give his Baltimore fan base a different kind of show, one that would truly allow the songs to shine and the audience to take in the music in an intimate setting.
In great contrast to the bar-room and standing-room-only shows Jacobs fans are used to, the guitarist and vocalist and his band will take the stage at the 550-seat, acoustically pristine Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills on Saturday, Nov. 5 to celebrate the Oct. 21 release of Jacobs’ second full-length album.
“I’ve seen some really great shows there over the years. … I’m very excited,” Jacobs said. “The acoustics are great in the room. I’m excited to change it up for a night and not play in a rowdy bar. People can really take in the songs and digest it. For this particular show, I wanted something [with] a little more intimate feeling.”
Since taking over the JCC performance hall four years ago, Randi Benesch, senior managing director of arts and culture at the JCC of Greater Baltimore, has been trying to find the right fit for a Cris Jacobs show.
“The Gordon Center is a unique venue in Baltimore. There’s not a lot of medium-sized venues like this with great acoustics,” Benesch said. “This is a chance to really sit down and listen and hear his songwriting.”
Amy Helm & The Handsome Strangers — the daughter of The Band’s Levon Helm and her band — will open the show. Baltimore singer and guitarist Brooks Long, who brings an old school “rock ‘n’ soul” sound, plays an acoustic set in the venue’s lobby from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. to kick things off.
As on “Dust to Gold,” the show features Jacobs’ heavy-hitting band of John Ginty on keys, Todd Herrington on bass, Dusty Simmons on drums and Jonathan Sloane on guitar, all established musicians in their own right. Jacobs, whose band saw a rotating cast of musicians in recent years, said he looks forward to continuing to build chemistry with the same group of musicians.
“The rhythm section is super funky, but they’re also very sensitive, song-oriented players,” he said. “So it’s got a really nice soulful, Americana vibe you could say.”
On “Dust to Gold,” Jacobs moves through upbeat, head-bopping blues on “Jack the Whistle and the Hammer” and “Shine Your Weary Light” to the soulful ballad “Cold Carolina” and shows off his lap steel skills on “Bone Digger” and “Turn into Gold.”
“It’s me. It’s got all the elements. It’s got some rock ‘n’ roll, some soul, some rootsy/country/bluesy vibe, some funkiness, some psychedelic, some sweet [songs], some harder edges,” Jacobs said. “It’s me, man: your local schizophrenic musician. It’s continuing the evolution. I never really have settled on one particular genre on purpose. I love it all.”
While Jacobs is right to recognize his diversity of influences, the end result hardly comes off as schizophrenic. Rather, “Dust to Gold” is Jacobs’ most refined effort to date, with him truly owning his space a singer-songwriter steeped in the blues and soul.
The album also chronicles a major milestone in the Jacobs’ world — the birth of his daughter on Sept. 28.
“I went into the session and pretty much found out right as we began the album that we were pregnant, so I wrote this tune, a little lullaby, to the unborn baby,” he said. Jacobs’ wife, Kat, sings backup on the song, “Little Dreamer.”
Longtime supporters of Jacobs have been giving the album the highest of praises since its release.
“I think it really marks further evolution of his singing, songwriting and musical abilities, and he has a great band playing with him,” said Ben Greenwald, a former chair of the board of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore who chairs the board of Believe in Music and sits on the boards of the Pearlstone Center and University of Maryland Hillel. Greenwald has been following Jacobs’ career for 15 years, since the early days of Jacobs’ previous band The Bridge, who broke up in 2011 but still play together a few times a year.
“It’s been great to see him sort of break out on his own and get the notoriety and play with all these musicians across the country who want to play with him and have recognized his abilities,” Greenwald said.
Among the musicians Jacobs has opened for in recent years are Steve Winwood, the Steve Miller Band and country and roots singer Sturgill Simpson. Jacobs is also half of the songwriting duo behind Neville Jacobs, a project that features New Orleans’ Ivan Neville, the son of Aaron Neville and leader of funk band Dumpstaphunk. Jacobs said the group is aiming to release its long-awaited debut in 2017.
“There’s some really good momentum in that camp right now,” he said. “It’s all lining up.”
At the Gordon Center, Jacobs hopes to get Helm on stage for a few tunes, especially since they have shows together in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., on the previous two nights to work up some momentum. The two struck up a musical friendship earlier this year at the festival Jam Cruise, where Jacobs played “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free” with Helm, who hadn’t performed the song since her father died in 2012. Inspired by Nina Simone’s 1967 version, Levon Helm recorded the song in 2009 on his “Electric Dirt” album.
Helm, who is currently preparing material for a new album and touring through mid-November, was introduced to Jacobs by Neville, who invited the two of them to join Dumpstaphunk for a cover of The Band’s “Don’t Do It” during Jam Cruise.
“Hearing Cris sing, I knew immediately that this was someone who is a powerful musician and someone I was very excited to collaborate with,” Helm said via email.
It was Jacobs who invited her to sing with him the song popularized by Simone, which he’d been performing during his own shows.
“It was very moving, uplifting and joyful to sing that song with Cris and was one of the highlights of my Jam Cruise experience!” Helm said.
Benesch called Jacobs and Helm two of her favorite musicians.
“Their voices are so honest and soulful, just really real,” she said, “and I thought that could be a perfect night in the Gordon.”
The Cris Jacobs Band with Amy Helm & The Handsome Strangers play at the Gordon Center, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills, on Saturday, Nov. 5. Pre-show entertainment starts at 7 p.m., and the show, which is co-presented by the Charm City Bluegrass Festival, starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26 in advance and $31 at the door and be can be purchased at bit.ly/2f9WsLx.