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Clip: Marah

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  • Carl Zimring
    Marah overcomes adversity and gets another chance August 1, 2004 BY MARY HOULIHAN Staff Reporter
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 2, 2004

      Marah overcomes adversity and gets another chance

      August 1, 2004

      BY MARY HOULIHAN Staff Reporter

      Four years ago, everything looked rosy for the Philadelphia band Marah and
      its frontmen and founders Dave and Serge Bielanko. Recruited by Steve Earle
      for his label, Artemis Records, they were riding high on the success of the
      album "Kids in Philly." Great reviews rolled in, leading to extensive tours
      in the States as well as Europe. Along the way, its distinctive brand of
      East-Coast rock attracted high profile fans ranging from Bruce Springsteen
      to British writer Nick Hornby.

      It was a lot for the young musicians to digest.

      "We were really sort of innocent and didn't understand the business back
      then," said Dave Bielanko. "We got great reviews, but weren't selling
      records; we weren't going anywhere."

      Fast forward to the present; the brothers are older and wiser. They tell of
      a journey through personal and professional challenges that had them
      convinced the band would not survive.

      Now in their early 30s, they are seasoned performers back doing what they
      do best -- creating original music that takes soulful rock into what can
      best be described as a unique Philadelphia groove with equal inspiration
      from many sources, including Phil Spector, the traditional Philly Mummers
      parades and Jersey neighbor Springsteen.

      After a foray into overproduced pop on a second album, 2002's ill-fated and
      ill-received "Float Away with the Friday Night Gods," the brothers are
      touring behind their new album, "20,000 Streets Under the Sky," released on
      a new label, Yep Roc. Marah makes an appearance Friday at Schubas, where
      the band's appearances over the years have become legendary. The
      sweat-soaked events take listeners to a place where thoughtful, ragged rock
      still matters.

      In recent years, the brothers have recovered from problems including a
      rotating lineup, label problems, writer's block, too much partying and the
      usual rock 'n' roll overload.

      "We definitely felt hung out to dry," said Serge, of the two years after
      "Float Away." "Whether we had done that to ourselves or not, we felt pretty
      alone and very afraid. But I think you have to go through things like that
      to come to the next place, which might be the best place yet."

      Both brothers admit that "Float Away" was an attempt to avoid getting
      pigeonholed. The disc was helmed in Wales by Oasis producer Owen Morris,
      who said he loved their lyrics but hated their music. Hardcore fans, as
      well as critics, were aghast at the final product, which ignored the band's
      rootsy rock style.

      "Owen really wanted to do something different" said Dave, 30. "But toward
      the end, it was apparent that militant Marah fans were going to be a little
      skeptical of this record, or flat out not like it. But we wrote it from a
      very real place, and the songs all made sense to us. It remains a chapter
      in an unfinished book. It needs to be there."

      Like a young Springsteen (Asbury Park, N.J.) and the Bottle Rockets
      (Festus, Mo.), the Bielankos had always been tied heart and soul to their
      hometown. But being young and restless, Serge, now 32, feels they were
      trying to break away from the "urban folk thing" with "Float Away." "I
      think we wanted to challenge our fans," Serge said. "It was almost like we
      could do no wrong. We certainly didn't want to drive them away, but maybe
      see how far we could stretch it with them."

      After the "Float Away" disaster, the band split from Earle's label; Serge
      followed a girlfriend to London, and Dave moved to New York. By all
      accounts, the band was on hiatus. But one day Serge called his brother and
      over a cell phone, sang his newest song, "Feather Boa," one of the best on
      the new album. The song about a transvestite hooker, a character remembered
      from their old Philadelphia neighborhood, was the inspiration that the
      brothers needed to begin work on what would become "20,000 Streets Under
      the Sky."

      The new album, recorded in their old stamping grounds above a South Philly
      auto body shop, is a return to what they know best; life in the streets and
      rowhouses of Philadelphia is what inspires the Bielankos.

      "What it boiled down to was that we realized you can go somewhere else, but
      where you're from is always going to be part of you," Serge said. "We fell
      in love with the soul and grit of Philly. It's a city with an underdog
      mentality that likes to fight back. It's very similar to our band."

      Marah -- the name comes from a biblical term for "bitter" -- was formed
      when the brothers were in their early 20s. They grew up in Conshohocken, a
      working-class suburb, and moved into the city after high school. While the
      Philly sound has been defined by soul, R&B and Spector's "Wall of Sound,"
      it has never had a rock component.

      The Bielankos set out to change that. Oddly enough, Dave also plays the
      banjo, but not in any bluegrass sense. His inspiration to pick up the banjo
      came from the New Year's Day Mummers Parade, a sort of northern Mardi Gras,
      which, among other things, features wildly dressed banjo players.

      While Marah remains "the best rock band you've never heard of," Marah and
      the Bielankos' star seems on the rise once again. Last year, Springsteen
      brought them onstage to join in on Eddie Floyd's "Raise Your Hand"; in May,
      longtime fan Hornby wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times about the
      power of rock, which sang the praises of Marah's "ferocious, chaotic and
      inspirational" music.

      Dave Bielanko laughs at whether they're getting wiser as they get older.

      "It's a big trick to even have a career in music today. But if you're
      lucky, you can trick the system into letting you mature gracefully and grow
      up playing music. There's great joy in that and you do get wiser and more
      careful about things. You learn from absolutely everything you do and you
      carry it all with you."

      Added Serge: "We've fought our worst battles. We've survived as a rock 'n'
      roll band that is still playing music for the same reasons that we played
      it on our first record. You just have to hunt for ways to make it all work."


      # When: 9 p.m. Friday
      # Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
      # Tickets: Admission, $12
      # Phone: (773) 525-2508
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