Marah – Hootenanny for the inner-city soul
In South Philadelphia, at every turn, you’ll find endless representations of the working-class ethic that is particularly idiomatic to this blue-collar neighborhood. They’re the folks who sell you vegetables and meats at the Italian market, or fix your car at the garage around the corner; who can be found after work at the neighborhood bar having a Yuengling or rehearsing with one of the several Mummer bands based in the area; who live or die with every game played out just blocks away in the city’s behemoth sports complexes.
This is also Marah’s world, and welcome to it. These environs were where bassist Danny Metz and drummer Ronnie Vance grew up together. It’s where Marah played dozens of early gigs for friends in a local VA hall, in the process defining their sound. And it’s where the band continues to keep a space in which to practice or hang out (dependent on the prevailing mood).
It’s also home to their songs — the you-and-me and him-and-her character portraits at the core of the band’s work, captured moments from day/week/lifelong struggles of everyday folk to rise above wherever they’ve set their personal bar. Getting back up after consistently knocking down that bar, however, is the difference between temporarily losing and becoming an acrimonious loser.
Taken as strictly words on paper, it wouldn’t be a reach to hang the band’s debut, Lets’ Cut The Crap And Hook Up Later On Tonight, with a tag like, say, embittered. And taken in tandem with the origin of the band’s name — find a Bible and flip to the book of Exodus, chapter 15, verse 23: “When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; therefore it was named Marah” — who’s to argue.
“We’re not really [that bitter]. It just seems like we’ve got a circle of people around us who are,” laughs singer Dave Bielanko, who along with his brother Serge writes the bulk of the band’s lyrics. Marah was expanded from a rhythm-section-for-hire to a three-piece band in 1993 when Dave answered an ad that was placed in a local musician’s exchange column by Metz and Vance. Serge came aboard two years later; ironically, a falling-out between the brothers had resulted in the dissolution of their garage ensemble and led Dave to Marah in the first place.
Fate or brotherhood them back together, eventually. “The only thing that took so long was, like, music can be an awful, disgusting thing that you don’t want to do”, explains Dave. “And you go out and look at the other bands on your bill and the city spinning around you and it’s sometimes depressing. And I think that’s what he [Serge] felt; until we really became a band, I don’t think he really wanted to join.
“You’ve gotta build a bubble around yourself and build your own thing. And when it became clear that we could do that, I tried to push him into [joining] because I knew that it was this other box of songs that we’d have access to.”
A year and two boxes of songs later, the band started to feel there was an album to be made. And in Michael Harrington, a self-professed huge fan and owner of a local record store and small label, they had someone who was willing to advance them a few thousand dollars to record an album for release on Harrington’s Triquetra imprint. The band took the cash and rented 1) a space above an auto-repair shop; 2) an eight-track machine that actually only had seven working tracks; and 3) a small, not fully functional board on which to mix it. Then they made a record.
“I wish you could see it”, says Dave referring to studio/rehearsal space/social club that’s been dubbed the Marage. “It’s a big room above a working garage in an industrial section of Philly, partitioned down the middle to block the bounce from wall to wall. When we first started, it was like, ‘We’ve got to do something about these windows,’ and we’d hang carpets over them, and then we’d get hot and just pull ’em down. Next thing you know the door’s open and there’s a jackhammer outside and we’re trying to cut a part.”
Despite such hazards, recording in the Marage, as opposed to being on a studio’s time-clock, allowed the band to record at their own pace. “It gave us the luxury of coming down here and drinking beer and playing stickball and not really doing anything,” as Dave puts it.
Still, the majority of the album was recorded in short bursts of creative spontaneity; much of the delay in getting the record finished was a result of “the time, the months, that we worked on just making the acoustic guitar sound like one, in some tumble-down Highway 61 kind of way, as opposed to having it sound like shit”, Dave explains. “It was a lot of time working on how it sounded, and then just do it five times until you get the performance, and there it was.”
From the opening horn arrangement that’s part Fat Tuesday Mardi Gras march and part New Year’s Day Mummer strut, to the closing aria of bagpipes (and snoring), Marah tossed everything they could think of into the mix. The predominantly acoustic album is awash in banjo, mandolin, dobro, xylophone, piano, harmonica, pedal and lap steel; it comes with (literally) all the bells and whistles. Not to mention bottle-blowing. And, considering the technology at hand, it sounds amazing.
Most of all, though, it comes with the swagger and soul that marks a great rock band in the making. Marah has taken the rural front-porch hootenanny and moved it to the stoop of the trinity around the corner in South Philly. The band’s songs embrace the everyday frustrations of the blue-collar constituency that lies in the neighborhood right outside its work/play-space, delivering their message with both passionate urgency and charming heart-on-sleeve sincerity.
Tunes such as “Eventually Rock” and “Head On” are steeped in blustery bravado. The former songs’s lyrics, on the surface, “may seem predictable and may seem stupid — but that song has a point,” Dave insists. Being unduly troubled by the thought of a life without rock, I get it. Which in turn explains my giddiness every time I hear the adrenaline mainline of “Head On”, a full-on Faces/Stones rave-up of flailing guitars, wailing horns and bashed-out piano that barely manages to hold itself together for its three-minute duration.
Alternately, “Phantom Eyes” and “Firecracker” are enshrouded in the melancholia that arrives shortly after love walks out the door. “Formula, Cola, Dollar Draft” condenses a lifetime into a ardent-but-sobering five-minute Springsteenish treatise on the working class, opening quietly before escalating into the stresses of adulthood. “Boat” is a gospel stomper, embodied with the fervor of a roadside tent revival on a Saturday night, while “Rain Delay” is a charming seventh-inning stretch that features an intro of the band (“man, these cats are weird”) by Phillies play-by-play man Harry Kalas.
“Even at the end [of recording], we didn’t know what to expect. Are people going to get this at all? Are we completely insane?” Dave says of the album’s stylistic diversity. “What we wanted to do was make it a really interesting ride, and when you get to the end, when you get to the bagpipes after the horns in the beginning, it just feels like, man, that’s something.
“We figured we would make a Jack Logan record, and all of a sudden it became a Phil Spector album. It got layered and it got big, but it felt completely natural.”
So, how did a record that was funded by a local entrepreneur with limited funds find its way to Mississippi label Black Dog Records? According to Dave, it’s as simple as Serge handing a tape to Black Dog co-owner (and Blue Mountain co-leader) Cary Hudson at a Blue Mountain show. Cary grew to love the record, and Marah bought the finished product back from Harrington in order to do a deal with Black Dog. No hard feelings.
Suffice it to say that Harrington’s version is a more than a tad dissimilar, complete with the requisite bitterness. When it’s all said and done, it’s just another day in the music business, only on a smaller playing field. But despite whatever issues Harrington has with the band, he remains steadfast that Marah has the goods.
“The real problem (for me) is that they’re totally worth the hype,” he says. “They made a great record. They’re one of the greatest live bands I’ve seen in my entire life. I’ve sat there and cried at their shows — not out of sadness or that their songs are real deep or anything. It was just like, holy shit. Those guys are the real thing.”