31 Dec 1969: Mercury Lounge New York
Sacrilegious as it may seem, when the events of last September occurred, my thoughts first went to Philadelphia band Marah. Although my mother was employed by the United Nations, lives near the once-targeted Empire State Building and was entering UN headquarters at the moment when all the agency members were instructed to evacuate, I had felt a vague apprehension about the South Philly-spawned quartet since hearing of their departure for Wales last summer. Contemplating what might befall my mother was the real terror such that my mind must’ve mercifully strayed. Now it seemed that Marah’s plans abroad would be derailed by an “act of God” (?). Perhaps that initial twinge of fear came down to aesthetics—the notion recurring that somehow this defiant group of hardscrabble lads we’d come to love (awed critics and ecstatic audiences alike) would be negatively altered by a sabbatical amongst the sheep and green fields of the Welsh countryside. After all, lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Dave Bielanko’s compositions seemed to rely on the gritty urban specificities of Philadelphia and environs in particular; the tarnished beauty of North America in general.
The unrivalled heights of Kids in Philly suggested that he needed the spur of this quotidian vision with a locus of Christian Street as vital seed. Nevertheless, the voyage across the Pond was prompted apparently by just how stifling the composer found those constraints—the over-familiarity of those lionized “sou’filly” streets, the weight of the crowd’s expectations for the conquering hometown heroes, the Ghost of The Boss (not Diana, the other one), etc. At a succession of shows last spring, both Bielankos (Dave and elder brother Serge) made claims that they would return with a big time rock & roll record.
Well, here they are again, Marah safely restored to us Yanks after the ravages of an altered global landscape and months of the band’s sporadic Albion-only club appearances. They do have a great rock & roll record in hand, Float Away with the Friday Night Gods (E-Squared/Artemis) dropping on 16 July. And a new rhythm section: consisting of Jamie Mahon (bass/vocals/handclaps) and drummer Jon Kois that is shaping up nicely. They’re even making me dig The Boss (nudge wink). It seems Dave has lost none of his lyric-sonic pomp and circumstance on the transatlantic voyage, if the new disc’s best songs—- “Float Away”, “Soul”, “People of the Underground”—- are to be understood on their own merits.
While on the whole this release feels less personal, there are gorgeous songs like “Crying on an Airplane” which speak both to the West’s sense of alienation and disarray amidst wartime and the brothers’ angst in constantly leaving loved ones behind to pursue their particular version of the American Dream, not only in the UK’s green and pleasant land but across the highways of our struggling nation. I know it’s hard to make the leap from the rootsier vibe of the debut and Kids In Philly, the latter of which remains a high-water mark in their evolving oeuvre. Somehow, I am transcending my innate resistance to change and embracing Float Away so as not to lose my favorite band by the way (although, yes, I miss Slo-Mo too) . . . another roadside tragedy. Surely because my mother is a West Philly girl, I immediately took to such valiant signs of life from her long-depressed town (rivaled yes by the productions coming out of Axis Music / the Roots camp). Moreover, the years 1999, 2000 & 2001 saw me meet my own private Appomattox, so I took that first pluck of Dave’s banjo in the rain down by the Delaware River as a bridge to hope.
We can all still exhale, graced as we are with Marah’s current month-long residency at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge. East Houston Street has likely not seen such traffic since the heyday of noir-chic lounge Mekka on Avenue A. Every Tuesday night in July you can get your groove and your rockbitch on (or whatever). Some decent opening bands are also in the house. Jacksonville, Florida’s fine swamp-funk outfit Mofro preceded our boys on the launch of the Mercury dates. And the quintet’s draw was heartening considering this was the southern band’s first ever New York City appearance. Whether drinking out of Mason jars (believe it was well water not ‘shine) between tunes or spinning proud tales of being outlaws from dynasties of “dirt floor crackers”, the buzz Mofro have generated from the Jambands arena was more than justified. Hey, they even got a funky bass fisher from Normandy (!). I highly recommend catching their act and scoring a copy of 2001’s Blackwater (Fog City). Since other reviews have made plain the degree to which I am Dixie Bitch, it cannot be so hard to ken why songs like the following are irresistible: “Ho Cake”, “Nare Sugar”, “Cracka Break”, “Jookhouse” and the title track. But them ain’t jokes, you dig?
Resplendent and funky as ever in their rough finery, Marah have been kicking out the jams relentlessly for the NBC cameras, prurient model chicks, old skool initiates and their label head Danny Goldberg alike. I see it again and again at every gig—- as with a young girl dancing next to me during “The Catfisherman”—- they get it and they’re gone. The light switches on in their eyes and hearts and they’re instant converts. You hardly stand a chance of resisting this music. It gets you deep down where you live. If you have yet to hear, Marah is the hottest thing shaking in rock & roll. I defy anyone to present another band more representative of the genre’s ambitions, spirit and energy. Their Mercury shows were my true holiday this month, the time when this Kozmic Negress, like Afroman, got high.
So yes, my spirit had been leaden with sadness last September thinking about many friends, musicians, whose lives and careers were made extremely difficult by the turmoil and perilous travel conditions (most of whom cannot charge upwards of $200 per ticket like the Rolling Stones and ground their gypsy lifestyle indefinitely if need be because each band member stands to cash out with more than $20 mil). If it seems shallow to have such concerns when people were dying on airplanes and in landmarks, music has always been my only solace. And in dire times, the need for music to heal is even greater. Most of the musicians I truly admire/know are oftener than not the ones a wide swathe of people turn to. Inspired by (Gov’t Mule’s) Warren Haynes’ valiant attempt to honor a date in Colorado, the lengths he went to reach his goal, “smuggled” out of the City and on to the turbulent road . . . now heartened by Serge Bielanko’s tales of pastoral epiphanies and brotherhood forged beneath the arc of a rainbow in Wales despite our collective dark days—- I feel a renewed sense of purpose.
Marah, at the vanguard of a select band of funk & rock outsiders, continues to restore my breath thus it is for me to soldier on by supporting them with ink. It is only too easy to be demoralized by the current ruin of our nation and, on the smaller showbiz scale, to be angered by cases like that of The Who, greedily going on with summer tour plans with their “brother” The Ox hardly yet food for worms. However, the concurrent crisis of the West and of the music business suggests that some old sleeping dragon of yore is sloughing off its skin. Once the chrysalis is shattered, we can only hope that the rejuvenated landscape is peopled by a benign army of bands like Marah, Mofro and others who are powered by life-affirming rock ‘n’ soul. We who reemerge then won’t have to sing along with Dave these words from the beautiful, stack-choir blues that is “Float Away”: All of the streets are lonely, All of the faces are cold
Naw, we can at last sing of truth, liberty and the pursuit of happiness instead. Like my own singer Serge—closing the show with an exuberant take on the O’Jays classic “Love Train”, jumping on tables and dropping ardent serenades—we will all be reborn free.
// Notes from the Road
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