Marah – Walt Whitman Bridge
If only it were that easy. Loyalty to anything carries with it the burden of accumulated memories and expectations inseparable from those memories.
It would be nice to see things with fresh eyes and experience things with an empty canvas of a brain, but that’s easier said than done.
Oh, hey. I’m back
I saw Marah last Thursday night. Swirling eddies of thought about that show and its place in Marah’s ever-turbulent history will greet you after the jump.
Too Much Background (or “I Need To Show You Where I’ve Been So I Can Bitch About Where I Am”)
I’ve been attending Marah shows for over 10 years. It all started back in the summer of 98. XPN began playing a few tracks (“Fever” & “Formula, Cola, Dollar Draft”) off their debut album, and it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.
As an aside, if there’s a better title for a debut album than “Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later On Tonight”, I wanna hear it and then punch you in the face for undermining my ability to make grandiose statements.
The first time I saw them, I sprinted barefoot down Delaware Avenue with an anticipation-swollen heart and a bread pudding-swollen stomach for fear of missing their set. At the time, I probably couldn’t have explained why I was doing it, but it seemed very, very important at the time. And I was right.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen them (estimates are in the 60-70 range). Those shows have encompassed 5 states, 2 continents, 3 countries and hundreds of sweat-soaked transcendent moments where my shit-eating grin could be seen from space. Hell, they let me share the stage with them and butcher the hell out of one of their songs. And my connection to the band and the music has been the common ground of has been the manure in which numerous friendships have grown.
Marah has achieved a moderate level of success. They’ve had critical acclaim, high-profile celebrity fans (Stephen King & Nick Hornby), and a friendship with Bruce Springsteen (he played on their album and has shared the stage with them several times). Sadly, though, it often seems as if Marah was trying to find an easy way out of some weird rock-centric army the way they continually shot themselves in the foot any time a modicum of momentum was generated.
It’s kinda ridiculous how many rhythm sections (6 at last count) they’ve had. The latest split was particularly galling to a long-time fan on several fronts:
- The band was as fucking tight as any lineup they’d had to that point.
- Near as an outsider can tell, it seemed to be over the level of inclusion of keyboardist Christine Smith in the band. Just before a big American tour, ultimatums were given, bluffs were called, and when the dust cleared all that was left were Dave & Serge Bielanko and Smith. Adam Garbinski (guitar), Dave Peterson (drums), and Kirk Henderson (bass, keys, etc.) were gone. Smith & her keyboards had been a nice addition to the band, but not worth losing who they lost fro. I’ve strained to avoid the Yoko comparisons because she is talented. But jeez, I’m only flesh and blood.
- Adam & Dave were not only a great rhythm section, but they had their own band (Bloodline) which is pretty kick-ass in its own right. They would often open for Marah and then join them for the main set with them. Afterwards they would tie brooms to their asses and help clean up.
- They had just put out their strongest album in years (“Angels of Destruction!”) and never got a chance to tour the US behind it.
- Champion mustache grower and general bon vivant, Kirk Henderson, was perhaps the saddest casualty. When the band was at its lowest and darkest point in the wake of the much-anticipated, almost-universally-loathed-at-the-time Britpop sophomore effort “Float Away With the Friday Night Gods”, Kirk came along. He seemed to be a life-saver both as a musical jack-of-all-trades and as positive chi in their collective Feng Shui.
The 2 constants through all the tumult were brothers Dave & Serge. Swap out rhythm sections all you want, they were Marah.
Or so I naively thought.
The Show (or “My Brain Can’t Process What My Eyes Are Seeing”)
Which leads us to the point of this post. The show. This would be the first Philly show since the split happened early in 2008. In the interim, Serge had moved out to Utah to begin raising a family. It’s not clear how permanent this lineup is (Dave on lead guitar, Christine on keys & tambourine, Johnny Pisano on bass, and Martin Lynd on drums) whether Serge will ever rejoin the lineup.
But I guess any time you have a chance to add Ivan from Clerks and Dr. John to a band, you have to take it.
I have mixed feelings about World Cafe Live. The sound is always good, but the atmosphere fits certain bands better than others. And long rows of tables may have worked for The Last Waltz, but it adds a weird atmosphere for more rock-based shows. This should have been at Johnny Brenda’s or even the North Star.
I’ve been weaned on cramped venues like the Khyber. This was unsettling:
For the first half of the show, I had to close my eyes to keep from the sights overpowering the sounds. The wildly different lineup, the giant stage that seemed half-full at best, the sparse backdrop which seemed better suited for a high school talent show, picturing Jason Mewes singing Iko Iko, it was all too much. With my eyes closed, the songs sounded pretty good, which is not surprising given the quality of the songs and my love for them.
But this is a new band. It just is. And it bugs me, maybe more than it should, that Dave chose to still call the band “Marah”. Yes, it was technically his band that Serge joined way back in high school. But that’s a technicality in the most lawyerish of ways. Every album they’ve put out and every show for 10+ years have been the two of them as the rocks of the band amidst waves of tumult.
Half of that rock breaks off and you still call it Marah? That’s an XL horse pill you’re asking me to swallow.
Maybe calling it Marah would help with booking venues, though the last-minute cancellation of the 2008 tour could not have helped their reputation with promoters. Maybe it’s a placeholder until Serge can finish his “maternity leave/hiatus/exile in the alkali flats of Utah”. But that’s not how it feels. It feels like Dave’s taking the reins of the band. That’s his prerogative, but have the guts to forge a new identity, even if it’s “Dave Bielanko’s Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings”.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t trot out an entirely new band and then expect to get the same rapturous reception that you’ve received in the past just because it’s the same name on the ticket. That’s something you earn. Not something you get by raising your arm and begging for applause after every third song. First, you’re not going to get that kind of reaction at a 3/4ths-full WCL with half of those people in the seated positions. Second, it reeks of insecurity and trying too hard to make up for it. If the music is good enough, the fans will respond. At times it was, at times it wasn’t, but there’s going to be growing pains.
But as I looked around, there were more than a few people who seemed to not be weighed down with the baggage I’ve wordily described. They were ecstatic in their reception of every song. So maybe I was the weird one. Wouldn’t be the first time.
On one level, I was jealous. On a larger, more weirdly cluttered level, I would have felt disloyal to inhabit that level of rocking-out from the word “Go”. Disloyal to the memories of past shows, past line-ups, and past experiences.
New Mommy may be prettier and she may treat you extra, super nice. But you still owe it to Old Mommy to respect the importance of what has happened before by not cleaving enthusiastically to the newer model’s breast and loudly proclaiming your eternal love and loyalty the first time you meet New Mommy.
Sigh. I’ll stop with the creepy metaphors. Strong personal feelings aside, this was not a terrible show.
It was quite strong in areas:
- Hearing the songs off of AOD! live for the first time. Hot damn.
- The funk tinge added to songs like “Catfisherman”.
- The banjo-less “Round Eye Blues” that worked way better than I thought it would.
And it needed work in others:
- Do we really need keyboards on every song? Listen, I love keyboards underpinning rock songs. It’s one of the reason I love a number of bands (Centro-Matic, Two Cow Garage, come to mind). I liked it on a lot of songs, and as I stated earlier, Christine is very talented. But it cluttered a number of songs. Just because the keyboard is there, it doesn’t mean you have to use it.
- The reworked, slightly up-tempo “Formula Cola Dollar Draft” suffered for the change. They’ve reimagined a number of songs over the years, but this one wasn’t working.
- Dave has never said a lot. Rambling stories and speechifying were always Serge’s forte, and he’s quite good at them (with the notable exception of a New Mexico snake story told at a State College show). Dave has good comedic timing when commenting on other people’s peculiarities, but he seemed to struggle a bit stepping into the storytelling, show-running limelight.
So there were signs of hope, but Marah as it’s currently constituted has a ways to go. I’m interested to hear the new album this fall and am curious how much, if at all, Serge was involved. I hope the door isn’t closed forever on his involvement, but I’m not optimistic.
I’ll leave you with a few vids from both Mommies.
The song that inspired this post (Walt Whitman Bridge):
From the previous lineup, here’s a smoking version of Feather Boa, which tells the tale of a star-crossed cross-dresser, interrupted with a little Baba O’Reilly. This hopefully gives you an idea of why I miss what was before so much.
Semi-acoustic Round Eye Blues, looks like it was taken from a Dave/Christine show late last year:
- ... Bagpipes (Coolerman)
- Theme From Rocky
- Faraway You
- Coughing Up Blood
- Angels on a Passing Train
- Catfisherman (+Jungle Boogie, Fame, etc.)
- This Town (for Dave's Mom)
- City of Dreams
- Limb (w/Coolerman)
- Rocky Theme Reprise
- Rain Delay (for Harry ...)
- Can't Take It With You
- Walt Whitman Bridge (Christine on Harmonica)
- Young at Heart
- So What If We're Out Of Tune (which Dave introduced as a "backwards skating chick tune")
- As Time Goes By (Johnny and Martin Dance w/girls in the audience)
- Round Eye Blues
- Angels of Destruction
- The Closer / Too Much Monkey Business
- Point Breeze
- Wilderness (chorus only w/Coolerman)
- Superstition (sort of ..)
- New York, New York