Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Ghosts of Marah Shows Past (or “New Mommy’s Trying Too Hard”)

355086702_e3407b1c8cFaraway from these winter streets
On a cloudless day
Your memory
Blows away

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 scrambling posting. 

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:

  1. The band was as fucking tight as any lineup they’d had to that point.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. They had just put out their strongest album in years (“Angels of Destruction!”) and never got a chance to tour the US behind it.
  5. 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:

  1. Hearing the songs off of AOD! live for the first time.  Hot damn.
  2. The funk tinge added to songs like “Catfisherman”.
  3. The banjo-less “Round Eye Blues” that worked way better than I thought it would.

And it needed work in others:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

The Setlist

  • ... Bagpipes (Coolerman)
  • Theme From Rocky
  • Faraway You
  • Coughing Up Blood
  • Angels on a Passing Train
  • Tyrone
  • Catfisherman (+Jungle Boogie, Fame, etc.)
  • This Town (for Dave's Mom)
  • City of Dreams
  • Body
  • 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
  • Formula
  • Point Breeze
  • Wilderness (chorus only w/Coolerman)
  • Superstition (sort of ..)
  • New York, New York


sean said...

Great post and I am in almost total agreement with you. Just two factual errors: Adam played guitar, it was Kirk and Dave who were the rhythm section, and it was the 2008 American TOur that was cancelled, not the European tour

Cline said...

Post updated to correct those mistakes.

hendge said...

Good read.

And I'm totally with you on the World Cafe Live thing. I hate when they have seated rock shows like that. What's worse is what they've come to call their "roadhouse" setup which is actually a combination of seating AND standing-room on the floor (tables kind of U-shaped along the outside of the floor, GA/standing in the middle). I was at a show like this last year and the tension between the seated patrons and the standing patrons was palpable -- the seated folks believing they had rights to certain site-lines and the standing folks believing that open space is for, well, standing.

I actually wrote to WCL about it after the show and, to their credit, received a very nice personal letter back thanking them for the feedback and explaining their process.

They rely so much on food and drink sales to support the music side these days, that they will basically take any opportunity to have seating (for which they can charge extra and/or have spending minimums). It's basically up to the artist to dictate otherwise -- if the artist prefers GA floor or no tables in front of the stage, they will accommodate.

Frankly, I'd rather pay a couple bucks extra per ticket and have all rock type shows purely GA on the floor. Nothing saps the energy of the room more than folks sitting there eating and drinking. That's what the Tin Angel is for.

Anyway, bottom line, they are receptive to feedback. I highly encourage anyone that has feelings on the topic to send them a note through their website. Because it is a great venue, but some shows are definitely undermined by the seating arrangements.


lojo said...

Maybe new mommy will be really, really cool...

I was never lucky enough to get to see old mommy, I found the band before AOD! and had to wait a long, long time to even see them live...

I think and hope we're in for a treat. At the last show, Jammmin' Java, we got to see the real new mommy. The new songs we heard are different, more musical and really, really good. And, the band can still do justice to the great old songs as you eloquently pointed out.

Dave is the voice of this band and a big part of its heart. He might not be the main lyricist but he, is in my opinion, the musical force behind this band and seems to have written some great lyrics on his own. So, he can evolve Marah as he can still play the old songs but also create new ones. This is not Little Feat without Lowell George.

So, I respect your loyalty to old mommy but I'd say give new mommy a chance. The proof will be in the new songs. If they suck, hey you guys are right, Dave can't be Marah without Serge and Bloodline guys. But, if they are good or even great, why not embrace it (not gonna say new mommy :))?

Cline said...

@hendge - It was a "roadhouse" show (Jeff Healey is rolling over in his grave at that title), though since it wasn't a sold-out show, the class warfare you describe wasn't really in play. Forgot about the Tin Angel when I was listing alternate venues. They've put on some memorable performances there one of which I think caused the Richie Havens painting to emit a "Damn, Gina." word bubble.

@lojo - I can empathize about finding an awesome band late in the game and early in a hiatus. I discovered Sleater-Kinney just as they were starting an approximately 18-month vacation from shows. Luckily I was able to see them several times before they went on a (hopefully not) permanent hiatus.

And I am trying to keep an open mind and evaluate a show purely on its musical merits. A more intimate place like JJ would have helped as well. Walk before you run.

It doesn't help that I like to explicilty classify and catalog things. There's only so many fingers you can remover before hand becomes a stump.

holaolah said...

Cline - I appreciate you taking the time to lay out your thoughts and write so eloquently about Marah + Meaning.

mhines said...

good words Cline. I agree with most of it, and I felt just a little sadness at the end. Mostly a small sense of regret that this band will never get to the level we think it should get to, and this show was a small step back from the great shows of late 2007. My unsolicited opinion is that unless Serge comes back, retire the "Marah" name, and Dave should do it "solo". He has the talent.

bucks said...

Excellent thoughts. Why can't they just get back together? This patchwork version is sad.

Anonymous said...

i saw the newest Marah show and though johnny is a good bass player and martin is really just "ok," i think christine is a horrible addition to the band and, to be frank, the reason everything with this band is just so wrong. she is and has become an overpowering and exhaustively annoying presence and it's swayed the band from being a great rock band to a goddamned sham of it's former rock self. no wonder they cannot keep members/rhythm sections...the band is more screwed up than i once thought and it's sad. i'd say if you are a past or former member? you're better off. sorry, but this is how i feel, you don't have to feel the same of course.

before you think i don't like women in rock well i love fleetwood mac and heart so there...

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with the previous poster. I am able to see what Christine adds to the bad other than a constant annoying presence.

The new Marah is so depressing that I can't see them again. It seems so desperate. It makes me sad to think of how great they once were.