Marah – Street Smarts
Marah’s fans are not multitudinous yet, but the fans this Philadelphia group does have include some of the most respected figures in roots-rock. When Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirratt of Blue Mountain, for example, heard a tape of Marah’s first album-in-progress, the Mississippi couple insisted on releasing it on their own label, Black Dog Records.
When that album, Let’s Cut The Crap And Hook Up Later On Tonight, was released in 1998, a copy wound up in Steve Earle’s hands. He insisted on releasing Marah’s next disc on his own label, E-Squared. That album, Kids In Philly, is tentatively scheduled for release in early spring.
What makes this chain of events more intriguing is that Marah doesn’t sound very much like Blue Mountain or Earle. With its weird blend of East Coast bar-band bashing, Tom Waits-ish drunken storytelling and Philadelphia Mummers street parades, Marah doesn’t sound much like anyone else ever labeled alt-country. The closest comparison, perhaps, is the Bottle Rockets, who also spin working-class yarns with a wise-guy irreverence and a Lynyrd Skynyrd slam-bang attack.
When Marah opened for Blue Mountain in Washington, D.C., recently, the Philadelphians teetered on the brink of chaos, as the Bottle Rockets so often do. Dave Bielanko bobbed like a boxer beneath his jaunty old-man’s hat, chopping out guitar riffs from his white Telecaster and nearly closing his heavy-lidded eyes as he growled out the vocals. Bouncing around next to him was his older brother Serge, who strummed rhythm on a Gibson electric and added harmony vocals. Serge shares the family’s pointed features but looked a bit more bookish in his oval glasses and blue plaid shirt.
Providing the steady beat that keeps this wobbly train on track are bassist Danny Metz and drummer Ronnie Vance. On a song such as “Catfisherman”, the quartet (plus guest lap steel guitarist Mike Brenner) romped through a raucous, ramshackle Southern boogie that mutated into a Bo Diddley beat and segued into Springsteen’s “She’s The One”. Occasionally, Dave’s voice would break through the storm and one could catch vivid images of the poor and bohemian gathering on Philadelphia’s abandoned piers to cast for catfish in the Delaware River.
“I never understood why we were called alt-country,” says Dave Bielanko. “I guess it’s because I played banjo on the first album. But we never thought of the banjo as a country instrument; we think of it as a Philadelphia institution. When the Mummers Parade goes down Broad Street on New Year’s Day, you’ll see 25 drunks strumming tenor banjos in formation.
“It’s a very big, very jovial, very open sound; it’s the Phil Spector approach to banjo playing. If we could have afforded it, we would have had a whole banjo section. That’s the sound we were going for, more like the Pogues than the McCourys. I’ve heard Rob McCoury; that’s a real banjo player. I’m not a real banjo player.”
All that said, you don’t have to dig very deep to discover just how much Marah owes to the folk-troubadour, singer-songwriter tradition of Earle, Dave Alvin, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. From the conversational drawl of the vocals to the jangly twang of the guitars, from the lyrics’ emphasis on metaphor and narrative to the bouncy, sing-along melodies, Marah’s alt-country roots aren’t hard to find, even when buried under R&B horn charts and Stonesy guitar riffs.
In fact, what makes this band so interesting is the way they apply this rural folk sensibility to modern, urban subject matter. For Marah isn’t writing and singing about the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, small-town Texas, the Alabama woods or even the Jersey Shore. The brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko, 25 and 27, are writing about Philadelphia, a big East Coast city with far more street lamps than pines. It was an inevitable collision of sensibilities: If you want to make literary rock ‘n’ roll, the Dylan-Springsteen folk-rock template is the most obvious model, even if you are deep in the city.
“There’s no way I could deny that Guthrie, Springsteen, Dylan and Williams influenced me,” Serge admits, “so I don’t even try. We’re not ashamed of our influences; we wear them on our sleeves. If you’re going to make popular music where the words matter, those are the obvious examples.
“But I’m not going to write about the Dust Bowl; I’m going to write about Philadelphia, because that’s what’s outside when I open my front door. When I listen to Woody Guthrie sing about the Dust Bowl, that’s something I’ve never experienced, but I love hearing those songs because he makes it so real. I bank on the fact that our songs will appeal in the same way to people who have never set foot in Philadelphia.”
“The words have always been the important thing for us,” agrees Dave. “Musically we’re not Rush or Frank Zappa, so if we’re going to make our mark it’ll be with our lyrics. If the words and music come together and the music makes you feel what the singer is saying, that’s what it’s all about. Otherwise, if you’re just going to play mediocre songs, you might as well do something else with your life.”
The two brothers most often write separately, but they co-wrote “Christian Street” for the second album. The nasal, Dylanesque verses bristle with the details of a vibrant urban street scene: Catholic statues, homeless shelters, Vietnamese barbershops, fat Italian mobsters, numbers runners, boombox b-boys, pizza, doughnuts, amaretto, the ghosts of Jackie Wilson and Rocky Balboa. But the choruses burst into brass-driven, rock ‘n’ roll shouts of “Come on! Come on!” as if Dave Bielanko were channeling the hungover voice of Paul Westerberg backed by the Memphis Horns.
“Christian Street is where Serge and I live,” Dave explains. “It borders along the Italian Market, and it’s the gateway to all things South Philly. It’s definitely an old-school Italian neighborhood. Up the street is Plumbo’s, a nightclub where Frank Sinatra used to sing; it burned down suspiciously a few years ago. It’s a cool place to live, so Serge and I decided we should write a song about the street where we live. It turned into this celebratory song, sort of Frankie Lymon meets the Stooges.”
“The number-one rule for writing songs, as it is for books, is you start by writing about what goes on around you,” adds Serge. “The greatest writers write about what they know. Springsteen wrote about Thunder Road; the Beatles wrote about Penny Lane. So we wrote about Christian Street.”