Like most music-loving Americans, you might not be familiar with Marah. Maybe you remember Stephen King mentioning The Best Rock Band In America That Nobody Knows About a decade ago in his old Entertainment Weekly column, but that didn’t make you actually listen, or become a fan. And that’s okay, not many people did, though the mention did work on a few of us.
For the uninitiated, Marah is an independent (not “indie”) American rock band originally from Pennsylvania. Its rock and roll flavor tends toward the country- and bar- hyphenates, though at various moments over the course of a long career one could also have used folk- and dude-. Rootsy, free-wheeling, jamming but not Jam, earnest in their way yet easy-going, half-drunk, and tired of fucking around, most of Marah’s songs aim squarely for your midsection, the gut or the heart, doesn’t matter which, as long as they connect with something vital.
The only member who’s been in it for the entirety of its existence is lead singer and driving force Dave Bielanko. The band is from and used to be headquartered in Philadelphia, decamped for a time to Nashville, later took up in a “one stoplight town” in central PA (more on that in a moment), and currently appears to be on-again in Brooklyn, at least for the time being. Marah doesn’t tour much outside of the mid-Atlantic seaboard, but one could also say it doesn’t tour much, period. There was a time when Bielanko and Co. played festivals and took the occasional nationwide jaunt, but that’s been some years ago.
I’ve been lucky enough to catch up with Marah twice this century: once in Wisconsin in 2006, and again in Nashville in 2009. The first show came together for me on a lark, an out-of-town friend offering a ride to the show in exchange for a couch to crash on afterward. This remains the only time I’ve seen a group come out for multiple encores because the people in the room demanded them, five times over, with wild applause and a simple refusal to leave. Marah eventually ran out of songs, and so came out into the bar to get shit-faced with everybody because no one wanted to go home and the band, to their credit, wouldn’t make us.
The second gig wasn’t quite so insane, but circumstances had a lot to do with it. Even so, the show was amazing, and a damn sight better than the vast majority of rock shows one might see (especially in Nashville). Forced to assume lead guitar duties due to band member defections and firings, Bielanko handled them with aplomb alongside singing and audience-goading at the forefront of the crack team of gunslingers along for the occasion, taking the small crowd and music wherever he wanted them to go over the course of two hours and 6 tequila shots (lined up at the base of his mic before starting). Following the animated, sweat-drenched set, he hopped over to the merch table and sold t-shirts, stickers, and CDs in an all-business manner wholly different from the one used on-stage. A yeoman’s performance, from top to bottom.
If rock and roll had a union, Dave Bielanko could be its chief.
Marah has been in the process of releasing its latest record Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, the tenth under the moniker since 1998, for a couple years now. It’s a complete departure from what has come before, though it maintains the loose spirit of everything else in the discography and, at times, reaches gorgeous heights for which a longtime fan might be unprepared.
As the story goes, Bielanko and keyboardist Christine Smith were at a flea market a few years back and on the lookout for a new dose of inspiration when they found a rare, 100-year-old lyric book to which they named the album after called, Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania. It contained pieces native to central Pennsylvania mining country, collected by noted “song catcher” and archivist Henry Shoemaker and dating from the mid-to-late 19th-century. Mostly it was mountain music, gospel tunes, tales of woe and hardship, many fragmented or otherwise lost to history.
Bielanko and Smith connected with the words and, according to Bielanko, sought a way to flesh the songs out so they might remain in and of the world. He and Smith also used the project’s practically ancient origins as an excuse to abandon digital recording technology completely for a return to purely-analog representation. Over 2012 and early 2013, the pair and their new band mates (7 in all) shacked up in that “one stoplight town” deep in the central Pennsylvania Appalachians, wrote music to the lyrics, and recorded what resulted on reel-to-reel tape in an old abandoned church. No Pro Tools, no M-Box, no Garage Band; hand-splicing, pains-taking, minimal overdub polish.
This down-home approach extended beyond their equipment. Bielanko and Smith drafted locals steeped in the lyrics’ native culture and geography to play and sing. This includes an 8-year-old fiddle prodigy named Gus, who also picks a banjo and sings on two separate solo performances that made the final record. Sometimes the band left the doors of the former church open during rehearsals, allowing curious townspeople to stop by for however long they wanted; some of these people ended up singing on “10 Cents at the Gate”, a beautiful gospel-y hymn that dissolves into a discordant, vamping outro, a cacophonous moment during which everyone seems to be having a blast.
The ultimate goal, Bielanko writes in press materials, was to capture a moment of life and music coming together as it happened, in keeping with the folk tradition, and conveying that on-record with no after-the-fact corrections. Instruments go out of tune, singers land off-key, and everybody rolls with what results. Sometimes it makes for a tough listen, but much more often it makes for something original and moving, shambolic and open-hearted, like the very band itself.
I’ve been with Marah as a fan for four records now. Upon that first show, I picked up If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry, an album that features five of my all-time favorite tunes (suggested listening: “The Closer”, “Walt Whitman Bridge”, “Sooner or Later”). After that second show, I bought Angels of Destruction from Bielanko himself, a propulsive cohesive roots rock record (suggested listening: “You Can’t Take It With You”, “Angels of Destruction”). A year later, I grabbed Life is a Problem, a folk-pop record that is expertly made (suggested listening: “Put ‘Em in the Graveyard”, the other two records).
And here we have this strange, wonderful new collection. The music on Marah presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania showcases a deeper, folkier side to this band that is compelling. Bielanko’s voice remains a unique, Westerberg-ian instrument, and it works on songs like “Luliana” and “The Old Riverman’s Regret” to a startlingly moving degree, conveying the timeless human essence of the found lyrics.
Regardless of what twists and turns Bielanko has taken creatively and with his personnel, each record prior to this one exists on a sensible continuum, with artistic growth and development emerging from what came before without abandoning it entirely. An edifying spirit endures on Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, but the music itself comes from another dimension. More to the point, one can’t really call Marah a rock band anymore, at least not on this record. There are rock elements, certainly, but steeped in bluegrass and folk and Weird America shit that’s going to hit every person differently, and turn some off.
Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, then, is roughly equivalent to an accomplished fighter switching up styles mid-career, allowing for new limitations while sharpening the instincts that garnered accomplishments in the first place. It will be interesting to see if these Mountain Minstrelsy songs can even be played live; no matter what, they can’t be done in the homespun, all-together-now manner of the album tracks, though a surer bet is that Marah will make them shine, however that has to happen.
Unless, of course, those days as road warriors are in the rear-view once and for all. Tours cost money, and independent as it is, Marah has never made much. Less a corporation than a loose affiliation of subsistence farmers, this band is going to do whatever it damn well pleases, however the hell it wants, and that might mean only touring a compact ten-state area on one side of the country, and only every so often, as funds can be scraped together. Otherwise, they’ve got a website, they’ve got fans, and they’ve got a wide catalog of material to sell. At this point, for Marah, that appears to be enough.
Here’s the man himself, on the band’s website, talking about the Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania release and what this record means to him: “This is a 100% analog mono record made in a church in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania between 1832 and 2013…it feels like an old quilt that’s been in our family since forever ago…it’s got history and mystery and witches and cougars and saw blades and wedding rings and Hex signs stitched into it and now I’m being asked to march it down to the Salvation Army in a black plastic bag.”
The release of a band’s new record equated by its leader with a begrudging black bag donation to a thrift store: this is Marah, in perfect, glorious metaphor.