Marah’s spectacular, sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom on Friday, September 23rd was proof that rock ‘n roll is alive and well. The set opened up with Jeff Clarke’s solo bagpipe serenade to announce the group’s entrance, and hinted at the maximum folk-rock to come. The band came on to great applause, with brother Dave Bielanko thrashing away on acoustic guitar, and other brother Serge Bielanko on a vintage Guild electric hollowbody, a guitar player’s dream. When I asked him about it after the show, he responded “Oh, I’m not even really sure what model that is.” This says a lot about the band– they are about heart and soul, far more than any gear nerd-ology.
I’d heard a great deal about their legendary live shows, and was not disappointed. From the get go, Marah launched into their tunes with reckless abandon, Dave’s acoustic guitar showing signs of wear and tear similar to Willie Nelson’s beloved axe, Trigger. They played many of the greats from Kids In Philly, including “Far Away You,” “Point Breeze,” “Cat Fisherman,” “The History Of Where Someone Has Been Killed,” as well as much of Angels of Destruction, with “Coughing Up Blood” ending their first set.
I recently read that Dave is Marah. Whether hopping about on one foot, kicking at the air, or getting down before the crowd center stage, he certainly seems to embody the band, as well as the spirit of so many rock gods before him. In Dave, you can trace an arc from Elvis Presley, Keith Richards, Johnny Thunders, Joe Strummer, Paul Westerberg, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, to his own damn thing. This dude sweats– profusely. But only because he’s giving his all to every single song as if his life depended on it.
If Dave mans the bow, Serge is at the stern keeping this ship focused and directed, or so it appears. In fact, both brothers write, lead and rock hard, but there’s no question Serge keeps the live show grounded, which is a good thing. With Dave you feel that things might explode at any minute; he might even sweat on you. But Serge ain’t playing second fiddle to nobody. At one point, he came out into the crowd for an extended harmonica solo, an extra-long mic cable looped through the audience thanks to an attentive stage hand. His harmonica chops bring to mind the squeaky urban folk stylings Dylan or Bruce; no blues wizardy here. But it makes for great entertainment. And brother Dave seems right at home supporting Serge, allowing him to strut his stuff. After all, this is a family band.
To that point, the two Bielankos swap guitars as effortlessly as if they were passing the potatoes. The ego issues of the past seem far behind them now, with the main emphasis being to put on the best damn rock ’n roll show you’ve ever seen. Spectacle should have surprises, and there were plenty more to come. The band brought out friend and fiddler, Emilio Zef China, to play three tunes, continually switched up instruments (including Adam Garbinski and Mike Brenner swapping bass and third guitar) and keyboardist Christine Smith joined the Bielanko brothers for some acapella goodness, center stage. The peak had to be when the entire band walked out into the crowd to perform “Walt Whitman Bridge” unplugged, offering deeper insight to Marah’s folk roots and summoning visions of them busking on Philly street corners. If there were a hat, I would’ve thrown money in. The band closed out the show with crowd favorite “Reservation Girl,” which apparently isn’t on any studio album.
Marah are back from a break up, mostly sober and clearly committed to rocking your world. This tour supports the vinyl re-release of Kids In Philly and Angels of Destruction, and anticipates another trip over to Spain, a country they know and love dearly. Brother Dave spoke to the audience about it: “It’s a fucked up world. And who knows what’s gonna happen with this election. We might be moving to Spain!” With that he windmilled like Keith, let the chord distort into feedback like Westerberg, and furiously launched into another number like Strummer. The next time Marah comes to town, mark your calendar; they’ll revitalize your faith in music and humanity. Don’t miss the show!