[17 June 2004]

By Matt Gonzales


Photo credit: Cassandra Tomei

If you haven’t already heard about Marah’s colossal folly, let me briefly recap it: The proudly Philly-rooted band released two pretty great rollicking roots-rock albums that earned them the respect and love of both snooty rock critics and, more importantly, a modest corps of ardently loyal fans. Then, in 2000, Marah decided to get Owen Morris (who’s pedigree most famously includes Oasis) to helm the controls for their 2002 album, Float Away with the Friday Night Gods. The results were predictably atrocious. When all was mercifully done, Marah’s by-no-means major label Artemis quietly dropped them. Word on the street was that the band was giving up the ghost for good.

On the contrary, Marah, which is essentially brothers Dave (singer/guitarist) and Serge (harmonies/guitarist/banjo/harmonica) Bielanko, decided to keep at it. And although I can’t say this with any kind of authority or anything resembling evidence, I imagine that the brothers Bielanko stepped back, looked that their options, and quickly decided that playing rock-and-roll music for 10 to 500 people a night is far better than earning twenty dollars an hour at the steel factory or making three hundred dollars a week in tips at T.G.I. Fridays. So Marah recorded a new album, the soon to be released 20,000 Streets under the Sky which, to my ears, picks right up where the band left off before they went off to that weird-ass alternate universe where Beatles-based glam-pop and Springsteen-style rock storytelling could somehow coalesce into something good.

Despite the dubious calls they’ve made, Marah have always been dependable for one thing: their live show. They’ve always been known as a band that swaggers onto stage and proceeds to play, sweat, and purge its collective soul, taking none of it home when they’ve finished. And after seeing them make their live debut in Indianapolis, I can assure you that at least that much is still true today.

Although the crowd was by no means large—around a hundred people, but not much more—Marah seemed pleased with the turn out. According to lead singer Dave Bielanko, it was much better than playing to “two people” in Bowling Green, Ohio the previous night. The lip service to the city may have just been part of the old live routine, but Bielanko made a point of repeating how much he liked being in Indianapolis (and though I live here, and I like it alright—come on, already. This is Indiana we’re talking about.). The point is that Marah is a band that cares a whole, whole lot, about pleasing their audience. Even better, they reminded me of the Replacements with their drunken, all-things-be-damned passion. But whereas the ‘Mats were all about really, truly not giving a shit, Marah wins you over because they want so badly for you to like them. Case in point: Marah has an album full of new material coming out in just two months. Most bands would use a brief, pre-new-album-release tour such as this one to test all of the new stuff. But Marah stuck mostly to old favorites, playing them with the heart and moxy of a band that could desperately use the word-of-mouth promotion that comes a good show.

Highlights were Kids in Philly standouts “Faraway You”, “It’s Only Money, Tyrone,” and, my favorite track, “Round Eye Blues”. But what really demonstrated the band’s love for their audience and for performing live wasn’t their set list. It was the way they sweated, smoked, drank, and talked to us. Marah is a band that wants more than anything to connect with their audience, and this was no more clear than when both Dave and Serge jumped from the stage at the end of the night to play their guitars to a manic crescendo before the surrounding audience members, who weren’t sure whether to dance, stand and watch, or start air guitaring along with them. As the gentleman who booked the show put it: “This band gives a shit, and that’s enough for me.”

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