- Brothers Dave [left] and Serge Bielanko, with Christine Smith, as Marah reunited at Philadelphia's Undergound Arts on Saturday night
"Then Moses led [the people of] Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to the oasis, they could not drink the waters, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah." — Exodus 15:23
"Maybe everything that dies someday comes back." — Bruce Springsteen
If ever there were an aptly named band, it is Marah. The verses of Exodus from which it draws its name are an instruction on acceptance and perseverance in the face of tremendous adversity, an exhortation to the downtrodden to endure life's hardships and accept them not with anger and defiance, but humbly and without complaint. It's safe to say that in all the years of this band's existence, they've been asked to endure more than a few sucker punches to the gut, but this type of humility is just not in their playbook. How then should they carry on?
But the parable continues: for the exiled wanderers in the wilderness, just beyond the bitterness lies an oasis of shady palms, if only they persevere...
And so it was that on Saturday night, before a sold out crowd of 700 plus, in a packed, sweaty venue on Philadelphia's rapidly gentrifying but still heavily industrial east side, Marah's journey led them to the cool water from the well. In this season that celebrates those who have passed on, the band has been reborn.
Friend and manager Paul Dickman said before the show that he thought the band was as sharp as though they were in mid-tour, as though no time had gone by. But the things that happen to people with the passage of years inevitably alter them in innumerable and sometimes unknowable ways. In the seven or eight years of the band's separation, everyone has grown older, and (just maybe) wiser. Sweethearts have married and had children, friendships have waxed and waned, relationships have begun and ended. Long miles once separated this band from its audience and from each other, but on this night they found each other once again. And after years in which both Marah and its audience had wandered in the proverbial "wilderness," the newfound maturity and wisdom gained in the interim had not charged them with something to prove so much as with something to regain, something to resurrect.
And resurrect it they did. In an electric, two-hour-plus, two-set blockbuster performance before press, family, friends, and fans at Philadelphia's Underground Arts performance space, Marah reclaimed the city as its own, and in doing so reclaimed its status as one of the world's great rock 'n' roll bands.
It was a family reunion of the first order in the brand new music venue on Callowhill Street, truly a festive scene out of the Bielanko brothers' beloved Dickens. There were shared hugs and heartfelt greetings and myriad gestures great and small reflecting the significance of the occasion. Old friends met one another's gaze with a warm smile or a clasped hand, exchanging looks of joyous anticipation as if to say, "Can you believe it, we're at a Marah show!"
It was truly a scene to behold. After all, Halloween is a Marah holiday, so the stage was duly decorated: orange lights were draped across its front, and a carved pumpkin sat on an amp at stage left; spiderwebs and skeletons hung from the speakers above and throughout the room. And in keeping with the record release theme, an image of Philadelphia rowhouses taken from Kids in Philly artwork was projected on the back wall of the stage.
This night had been a long time coming, and at times the suspense was almost intolerable. The eager buzz of the crowd built gradually to a frenzy as the clock passed the scheduled starting time of nine o'clock, punctuated by a Philly-centric pre-show tape that was heavy on Mummers' music, Gamble and Huff and Hall & Oates. At length, the rumble became a roar as the familiar strains of Bill Conti's theme from Rocky echoed from the rafters and, one by one, Marah walked onstage at last, Dave Bielanko greeting the crowd by echoing the film's protagonist in a trademark triumphal raising of the fists.
Augmenting the core lineup — Dave and Serge Bielanko on guitar and vocals, Christine Smith on keyboards, Adam Garbinski on guitar and Dave Petersen on drums — were longtime friend and collaborator Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner on lap steel guitar and a horn section ably led by Matt Cappy (The Roots, Jill Scott) on trumpet. On tap to fill the roster was newcomer Mark Sosnoskie on bass, who wore an awestruck and joyous smile all night as he romped around the stage.
It began with a thunderous "It's Only Money, Tyrone," eliciting a joyous roar from delighted onlookers who bounced up and down in a delirious frenzy. Indeed, there was a virtual feedback loop of energy between the stage and the audience all night long until it seemed that the city of Ben Franklin itself might have been powered solely by the sheer force of energy in the building. It began like that.
Expectations for what this evening might bring had been impossibly high, and still somehow, Marah exceeded them. The band was as tight and well-rehearsed as ever, the energy and volume it generated simply massive. Never a band to skimp on decibel levels (having spent an entire tour opening for Steve Earle), Marah assaulted the audience with a dense wall of sound throughout the night. And the audience responded in kind, jumping up and down, waving hands, punching fists to the beat and singing along at full volume; at times the sound of the singing crowd was almost as loud as the stage vocals. The relentless sonic and emotional onslaught from the stage built wave after wave of emotion in the room; during the silences in between songs, the tension generated by anticipation of each new aural delight would instantly give way to a tremendous release as each song was recognized and cheered by the faithful, often after only a handful of notes or chords. A vast and mighty force enveloped both band and onlookers as Marah ripped through its set, a potent power that washed over everyone and left people exhausted and transformed. It was the force of joy and awe and belief and triumph, and it was unstoppable.
What was it like for Marah and its fans to return to Philadelphia after being deprived of all this for so long? What did it feel like to witness such a band at such a time and place? After years of hiatus, for Serge, setting foot on the streets of Philadelphia once again was truly a jolt from above. "This is the first time I've been back," he said towards the end of the evening. "It's been a long time. I had forgotten what this city does to you — you get here, and it zaps you like a thunderbolt." But Serge was talking about more than just personal homecoming; he was describing what it was like to come back to his beloved hometown as a part of something bigger and infinitely more powerful than himself. Witnessing Marah at this moment in this place that was and is so important to them all was like that.
Towards the end of the first set, the stage lights went down and only a single spot shone on Dave Bielanko's face as various band members walked off to stand in the shadows — all except Serge, who walked over to join him at the mic. It had been years since they had shared a mic on a stage in Philadelphia — it didn't seem quite real. And then Serge placed his right arm around his brother's shoulder and they began to sing.
Pitiful shoes, then we stepped in rain
And cold & wet my man
It's just become this race
A pocket full of lint
A pocket full of shit
Matches from the bar
"What reason should I stay?" I say
When I'm out on the street
I get light on my feet
Sometimes we suffocate & choke & gag
When the air we breathe becomes poison dope
We leave in the morning with blood by our side
Seeking happiness & long lost hope
We dream of new found freedom
But we're just too scared of leaving
Sometimes we dream of new found freedom
But we're brothers for a reason...
The room is hushed, and they stand lit by the lone spotlight, arm in arm. Dave strums his acoustic guitar, Serge leaning on his brother's left shoulder. Watching just offstage is their mother, who knows where they have come from and where they have been. She beams with the kind of pride and joy and love that only a mother can know. She remembers how often they've wounded one another, how often love and distance have both pushed them apart and brought them together. And they are together again singing this song. She knows all this and she stands there and smiles.
No matter what
The cat drags in
No matter what
The wind might bring
The road won't rise to meet us friend
Till we listen to the song
Discussing his reasons for returning to Marah earlier this year and wondering whether he was up to the challenge, Serge wrote, "The past is the past. I'm doing this for me. I need to say that and understand that it's all right. I'm playing rock/roll for me. I need it." In his mind, there was no choice. Indeed, the best art is made not because you want to do it, but because you have to. Only when the stakes are that high can the rewards be so great.
The evening was long and loud, its sonic and emotional energy draining all in attendance. It ended, appropriately, with — what else? — the Marah version of Conti's Rocky theme.
And as the performance drew to a close, the glimmer of something deep and profound began to twinkle in the eyes both of the audience and the band. Was it redemption? Resurrection? No one dared speculate.
No one except one David Bielanko, a person whose default stance is not doubt but defiance. "In pulling together this show, we got our band back," declared Dave several times throughout the evening. While realistically, it remains too early for most to make such a bold assertion, something else became crystal clear to those who were there to witness it; on this unforgettable evening of rock 'n 'roll music, after years of separation in which band members were dispersed to far-flung places like Utah and Millheim, PA and Brooklyn, years in which they had perhaps lost touch with the City of Brotherly Love (could there be a more perfect nickname for such a band's hometown?), years in which city of Philadelphia seemed likewise to have forgotten them, Marah was, at long last, at one again with the city of its birth.
Marah returns to Asbury Park's Stone Pony on Friday December 11. Miss it at your peril. Tickets: ticketmaster.com or the Stone Pony box office. Visit www.marah-usa.com for further information or to purchase Marah music and merchandise.
Lyrics: "Leaving," copyright 2002 Marah