I’ve never been in combat, but I imagine that when someone saves your life you’ll forgive them all types of transgressions afterwards. Maybe the guy or gal who saved you is a mean drunk who walks out on their bar tabs and leaves their friends to clean up their messes. But that same sloppy jerk pulled you out of the way right as a bullet went thudding into the wall where your head had just been. Maybe they’re a walking trainwreck, but dammit, they’re the only reason you’re still walking this Earth. By God, you’ll clean up all the messes they can make.
I love the way people from Philadelphia talk. I can’t help it. When I hear someone who grew up on Fairmount Ave. say “Bring me that glass of water over there, hon. And put some ice in it,” I’m in dialect heaven. I don’t know where my affinity came from, but it’s there and it’s undeniable.
When I came across the group Marah many, many years ago, I was on the bad side of unhappy. Their music helped me climb back onto the good side of the razor-thin walkway of life. If this sounds cheesy and Judy Blume-esque as you read it, it feels even more so writing it down.
Marah began in Philadelphia. They say “wooter” and “oyce” when they say water and ice. I was in love from the first time I listened to them. It was meant to be.
Founded in Philly by the Bielanko brothers, Dave and Serge, Marah is a rock and roll band. The brothers grew up in Philadelphia and recorded a great deal of their material above an auto shop around 17th and Broad St. in South Philly. And while they ended up migrating to points across the globe during the span of their career, that Center City blood stayed with them. Their records always have the twang of the mummer’s banjo, strummed with reckless abandon and joy. Even when they explore the mountain music history of central Pennsylvania, as they have on their most recent record, there is an inextricable urgency that derives from the hustle and rush of narrow urban streets and late night taproom rows found in that city where brothers love each other.
Marah has always, as long as I’ve listened to them, been on the verge of being big or popular or hip or some other vaguely indicative word that, in the music industry usually means, “deeply in debt to a record company.” In these post-CD digital music days, I don’t even know what success really looks like for a rock band. But from 1998 until 2009 Marah was always right on the verge of it.
They signed to Steve Earle’s record label. They had songs on two movie soundtracks back when those were still a thing. In 2000, their masterpiece, Kids In Philly, was in the top 25 of Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop Poll, placing ahead of Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker. They became pals with Nick Hornby, playing shows where Hornby read his essays about music, after which Marah would play exceptional cover versions of the songs mentioned in his writing. Springsteen guested on their third album, playing guitar and singing back-up on the title track to Float Away with the Friday Night Gods. He invited them onstage to sing with him at fucking Giants’ Stadium.
And to borrow an image from their most widely-played song, “Faraway You,” every time they were about to open the door to broader success, they would fall down on the steps, keys left jangling in the lock, and pass out on the stoop before anyone even knew they were there. The next morning they would awake, slumped in the doorway, sunlight beating down on their face, dazed and groggy. But instead of wallowing in despair, they would dust themselves off, go buy a cup of coffee with a limp dollar bill fished from their jeans, smoke a square, and start walking down the street, on to the next jawn.
Whether this Groundhog’s Day career was a function of Marah being a group scared to succeed, or just unwilling to jump through the hoops that the world set in front of them, I’ll never know. Self-sabotage is a difficult thing to diagnose, particularly in a world as capricious as the music industry.
What I do know is that Marah fans were one of the most fervent groups, per capita, I have ever witnessed at shows or online and they finally gave up, unable to stomach their favorite group bottoming out one more time.
And yet, like Sisyphus, Dave Bielanko (now sans his brother Serge) keeps pushing the rock that is Marah back up the hill until it’s time to let it roll back down again. [ed note: Serge has has since rejoined his brother for live shows, accompanied by many of the 2005-2008 iteration of the band.] In the last five years, he has released two more shambling, but often brilliant albums, Life is a Problem, and his most recent, Mountain Minstrelsy.
Each of these birth and death cycles leaves behind a musical artifact that is imperfect, but essential. Every record contains at least one or two shining jewels, songs that are truly stunning and timeless. And perhaps that’s the genius in this pattern, a sort of Percy Bysshe Shelley approach to one’s career. Because while there are plenty of towering figures standing across the globe of rock and roll—statuesque characters who seem like they’ve been there forever, permanent in time—the ones that will be remembered are those who leave behind a verse and a chorus that gets scratched into the soul. Listen to my works ye desperate and feel mighty.
Live shows were and still are where Marah truly take a chunk out of you and leave their mark, though. The brothers Bielanko and their ever-rotating supporting cast are nothing short of incendiary on the right night. The Hold Steady has often been called “The best bar band in America.” As someone who saw both bands frequently at their relative peaks, Marah had them beat for a couple of years. Bootleg recordings of their shows from the late ‘90s and the early aughts still stand-up to scrutiny. When they toured in 2004 with Jon Wurster on drums and Mike Slo-mo Brenner on playing slide guitar, they shook buildings off their foundations. Wurster described his experience as one of the most maddening years he ever spent playing music.
In 2008, just as they seemed poised for another golden age, they broke up their most long-lasting iteration of band members on the night before they played on Conan O’Brien (they had played once before in 2000). This alone might serve as perfect microcosm of their career, but there are numerous other events that mirror this one.
All of this operatic drama does nothing to diminish the music, though. In fact, maybe it makes it sweeter. This band and their music has drawn me out of some dark places in life. Maybe it suggests a kind of shallowness to my despair, that popular music made such a big difference in my life? I don’t know. But, I think the fact that Marah have always been tripping over their own feet, struggling to find a place in the world, while still in possession of immense musical talent, is comforting to those of also constantly trying to keep from falling over and returning to the dust.
It’s comforting in a very selfish, solipsistic way, of course. Isn’t it great that they’re as broken as I am? But really, an artist who wears their vulnerability openly and let’s us see equal measures of their success and failure, those are the people who speak to our most human feelings. They touch our deepest insecurities and often create our most cherished memories. Those artists make dive bars feel like churches. They make listening to a new record a moment of ecstatic meditation. Marah did all that for me. And those things can’t ever be erased.
Established ca. 1993 in Philadelphia. Marah comes from the Old Testament and means “bitter” or “bitter water.”
Genre: Rock and Roll, often sub-categorized as alt.Country or Folk Rock
RIYL: Springsteen, The Hold Steady, The Replacements, Whiskeytown, David Ruffin, Wilco, Old 97's, Dr. Dog, Otis Redding
Dave Bielanko - Guitars and Vocals. Dave is the founding and lone permanent member of Marah. On his best days he is a force of nature. On his worst, a supremely talented songwriter who can’t quite get out of his own way. He doesn’t know me from a dude on the street, but I’ll stand up for the guy until the end of time.
Serge Bielanko - Dave’s older brother and key contributor, songwriter, lyricist for the firsts seven Marah albums. He ranks among the five most entertaining musical performers I’ve ever seen. Ever.
Past and Current Members:
Ronnie Vance (Founding Member)
Danny Metz (Founding Member)
Mark Francis Sosnoskie
Bruce W. Derr
Jimmy James Baughman
- 1998: Let’s Cut The Crap & Hook Up Later on Tonight (Black Dog - 1998 / Phidelity - released in 2004)
- 2000: Kids in Philly (E-Squared/Artemis)
- 2002: Float Away With the Friday Night Gods (E-Squared/Artemis)
- 2004: 20,000 Streets Under the Sky (US: Yep Roc/Europe: Munich)
- 2004: Kids in Amsterdam: Live on VPRO (Phidelity)
- 2005: Float Away Deconstructed (Phidelity)
- 2005: If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry (US: Yep Roc/Europe: Munich)
- 2005: A Christmas Kind of Town (Yep Roc)
- 2008: Angels of Destruction! (US: Yep Roc/Europe: Munich)
- 2010: Life is a Problem (Valley Farm Songs)
- 2014: Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania (Valley Farm Songs)
Faraway You -
Formula, Cola, Dollar Draft -
Walt Whitman Bridge -
It’s Only Money Tyrone -
Freedom Park -
Santos De Madera -
Within The Spirit Sagging -
Reservation Girl -
If this morass of stuff—feelings, music, video, word vomit—somehow leads you to actually listen to Marah, I suggest you start with Kids In Philly and then go from there. It’s a spectacular record.
For an even better piece of writing about Marah, here is a link for a No Depression article that focuses on the time around the recording of their fourth album, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky.