marage-land : marah + the thanksgiving shows 04
It’s the night before Thanksgiving, and instead of being at home, baking pecan pies, or something, I’m walking around a dark neighborhood in South Philly. Inexplicably, someone is out washing their car… at 7:45pm. I confirm directions and the car washer wishes me Happy Thanksgiving. There, just past an old brick church is the street I’m looking for. I take a left and find myself in a deserted alley lined with auto shops, bay doors on the ground floor and small balconies on the second level, some clearly residential. My destination is the open window above Frank’s Auto Body, from which sounds of life gently float down.
Clambering up a steep, narrow staircase that wouldn’t be out of place in Amsterdam, I enter a softly glowing room, illuminated by what appears to be every type of Christmas, Halloween and other holiday light imaginable. A Joey Ramone doll greets me just to the right of the entrance, along with a blurry color printout of what ‘ after a second ‘ I recognize to be my hosts onstage at Giants Stadium. There are posters and equipment cases and records and cd’s and books and photographs and hundreds of tiny details crammed into this rehearsal space, belonging to the band Marah, hidden above the auto repair shop.
I keep putting off writing about Marah for some reason. Part of it is a wish to write a truly epic piece, something that will do the music and the men justice. Part of it is probably being overwhelmed by the task at hand. Part of it is probably unwillingness to unravel the emotional knot. And part of it is finding it difficult to put my finger on it, explain why it is I became instantly addicted after finally seeing them for the first time this summer.
I have been to punk rock shows held in abandoned basements, seen garage bands play on the floor of dive bars, went to a record company party on the Staten Island Ferry. I’ve been at private parties, after-show galas, sat in chilly garages, sweated through summertime rehearsals in acoustically sealed rehearsal spaces. I have watched bands claim they are close to their fans, I have observed those who insist that everything they do is for their audience.
It’s rare, though, that any of that is actually true, that it’s more than image. Even the best of them, sometimes, can’t come through in the clutch. To deliver on this type of promise requires an openness, an honesty, a willingness to not only take the mask off, but keep it off ‘ I’d even argue that it would forestall any ability for a mask to be there to begin with. So for Marah to let their fans into the inner sanctum, the actual rehearsal space, the room which is the incubator and the birthing room, where (as they said themselves), they have lived and loved and fought and battled with the muse ‘ is a statement of intent as well as trust.
Band of brothers, Dave and Serge. Serge, who wheedled his way into his baby brother’s band; Dave, who extracts revenge on a nightly basis by being the benevolent dictator. Street rats from Conshohocken whose promised land was Philadelphia. Boys who dreamed from day one, whose faith and hard work propelled them somewhere other. Absent father, ingredient number one, considering that all rock and roll angst boils down to : daddy. (Well, that and sex.) Street survivors with the scars to prove it, internal and external.
The rest of the Marah cast in 04 fills out as follows: Kirk ‘The Barber’ Henderson from Brooklyn, who is the foil in all the stories (‘Kirk’s from Brooklyn, he don’t know how to fish!’), on bass and keyboards, and my friends, he is a keyboard player like Ian Stewart or Ian McLagan was a keyboard player. Mike ‘Slo-Mo’ Brenner, this Buddha-like, imperturbable presence onstage, sitting in the back or over to the side while his hands seem to float over a lap steel guitar. In an odd way, that instrument feels like it anchors Marah onstage the way a rhythm section normally does ‘ and this band has a fine sense of rhythm, believe you me ‘ but it’s this steady, soaring constant that seems to keep them tethered earth-bound. And then, currently (no Spinal Tap jokes please), Jon Wurster on drums, who has played with everyone from Superchunk to Jay Farrar to Rocket From the Crypt, who is a solid presence behind the kit, no flash (that’s a compliment) but plenty of power, hitting the drums tight and hard.
Marah are this one in a million amalgam of rock and soul, that combine the right amount of everything that matters. The Ramones and Hank Williams, Springsteen and Curtis Mayfield, Philly soul and doo-wop along with 70s funk, the Replacements crammed in there along with the Rolling Stones. They know what and who they are, and do so with a straightforward earnestness that probably makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I’ve tried hard to find the pose or the posturing or the image and I can’t. I distrust the image, the kind of image-that’s-not-image, I’ve been taken too many times, you know? It’s like having a boyfriend who turns out to be something other than what he really is, but he sells you on what he wants to be, when you would have been happy enough with reality, but can’t stand the fact that you were lied to.
Realistically, a lot of the things Marah does, they do because they can ‘ because they are at a size and stature that allows it. I’m sure a lot of super-huge bands would love to have a small, intimate show for 50 or so of their most devoted fans, held in their private rehearsal studio, and not worry about a riot or invasion of privacy or being ripped off then or later. On the other hand, there are a lot of bands in their neighborhood (and by that I mean musical and same approximate stature) that don’t bother with ‘ of the things they do. Most of their actions seem to originate simply in a sense of what they think is right, and probably out of a sense of what they themselves (who are music fans, just like you and me) would like to see their favorite bands do, how they would like them to behave. I have seen bands acknowledge long-time fans, but not with the consistency and the true appreciation that Marah holds for them. And it’s done straightforward, matter-of-fact, no grandstanding, no stopping to make sure everyone is watching them do it.
They MEAN it. Which is the statement that sums up Marah in a nutshell. And they mean it for real, in an unvarnished, honest way, not in an ironic or sarcastic or ‘it’s hip to care’ way. And this is a problem, because it is going to (and does) make them very unpopular. It’s painfully honest, it’s almost TOO real, they get up there and don’t hold anything back and wring every fucking note they can out of themselves. I haven’t seen them do a bad show (but by all accounts there have been a few) but every time I have seen them, they’ve played it like it was their last one, until they are worn out and dripping with sweat… and then come out in the audience to talk to people and dispense hugs as appropriate. And that probably sounds hippie, but trust me it’s not, these are guys who you want on your side in any bar fight (and there’s the legendary story of the night Dave broke his hand, defending Kirk in a fight). They are probably carrying knives in their boots, although I would rather not know that for sure.
They named their van ‘Adrien’ and for a while would walk onstage to the ‘Theme from Rocky’ ‘ again, for real. This isn’t them trying to be funny or make a joke or be ironic, it really got them pumped up. They’re from Philly and they’re proud of it. They worship the city with an unabashed love for place that isn’t seen much, because the city was a beacon of hope for them, once upon a time. I can think of maybe Westerberg and Minneapolis, the MC5 and Detroit, but it’s not as full of unbridled affection and devotion as the Bielanko brothers have for Philadelphia. Pride is hokey; pride is for rednecks or Republicans; when in fact pride is what keeps an awful lot of people going.
So, the shows. They have an affinity for these kind of intimate, celebratory events ‘ Christmas shows, record release shows, Halloween shows. Their July record release party at Indre Studios was one of the most astonishing shows I have ever witnessed, simply from the fact that the entire f’in audience was getting down all night, to every single goddamn song. And they had a horn section, and the Shalitas, a great all-girl doo-wop trio on backing vocals, and they walked out to the ‘Theme from Rocky’ ‘
in Philly. It didn’t feel like a rock show, it felt like being part of some kind of ritual, because you are in a room filled with people who fucking love this band, and for whom the songs mean everything, who know every word, who are part of the music and not just casual detached observers. It almost felt like I didn’t deserve to be there, that I hadn’t earned it yet.
Earlier that summer, the boyfriend and I were on our way to get cheese steaks after a Marah show. The windows were rolled down against the July heat (it had rained relentlessly that day, so the open windows were a blessing), and we were somewhere in Center City, waiting at a stop light. All of a sudden, I hear a gospel choir floating out of the darkness. We snapped to attention, took a right and drove around the block again, pulling up across from a church, lights aglow on the second level, and listened to what was probably a dress rehearsal of some sort. We felt guilty eavesdropping, but it was such a time-stands-still magical moment, where you didn’t even want to breathe for fear of disturbing it, that our wonder outweighed any guilt.
I tell this story, not just because of its tangential relationship to Marah, but because that was what it felt like being at Indre Studios that night.
My second biggest memory of that show is Serge passed out on the floor at the end, in this fugue of exhaustion, after taking lead vocals on an encore of ‘Move On Up’ (yes, that ‘Move On Up’ ‘ the only other modern band in my book that can touch Curtis Mayfield is my late lamented and dearly beloved Afghan Whigs, who truly had soul in the Marah spirit) and then running like a whirling dervish through ‘Reservation Girl,’ which is as much a sacred encore energy raiser on the level that ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ was for The Who (and I had a license plate for years that read MAXRNB so I am not blaspheming here, and at this point, Townshend’s sold ‘Let My Love Open The Door’ to JC Penney so even if I am, bite me).
So now, with six months of Marah fandom under my belt, the addiction being fed by a steady stream of live CD’s from all sources, and traveling to shows and thinking about traveling to shows, I am at a holiday show feeling like an invited guest. Pre-Turkey Day and then Black Friday, limited to an audience of about 50 each night. Wednesday night feels like you’re at the last dress rehearsal before a tour, there’s a setlist although requests are taken, there are songs they don’t play very much or not at all, new songs dusted off, stories told, arguments witnessed. ‘City of Dreams’ is hopefully a taste off of what will be the next Marah album, which they begin woodshedding this winter. ‘David Ruffin’ (who died in Philly) should’ve made it onto 20,000 Streets but didn’t. ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me,’ learned for a friend’s wedding. ‘Walt Whitman Bridge,’ an epic ‘does this song exist or is it a myth’ kind of legendary thing. A small brotherly squabble is a prelude to ‘ out of nowhere ‘ an attempt at ‘Oogum Boogum’ (except that someone, no names, kept cracking up ‘ see note about squabble, or as Dave has said, ‘You try being in a rock and roll band with your brother.’)
That soul classic segues into ‘Point Breeze’ and then ‘Soul,’ forming this unlikely and unintentional perfect trilogy, the Shalitas come out to shimmy-shimmy-coco-bop their way through “Freedom Park” (requiring the entire audience to move to one side of the stage, and then the other, to give the girls room and a microphone). ‘Faraway You,’ this trance-inducing set closer segues into ‘Limb,’ which features ‘ I am so not kidding ‘ bagpipes. Hell, even (oh, shit, I’m breaking the rule here) Springsteen couldn’t get bagpipes to work onstage and abandoned them before the Rising tour ever started. For Marah, it works. Somehow.
Night two, day-after-Thanksgiving, is a little more crowded, and a little more rebellious and on a stand-and-deliver level from the get go, it felt more like a performance and not a private acoustic performance. Serge keeps referring to the list ‘ which is there ‘ and Dave keeps saying, ‘Forget the list. What list? I don’t care about the list.’ Part of that might have been the bottle of Maker’s Mark a fan brought as a gift (but they were going through tequila the night before), but it seemed like the older brother-younger brother egging on, rivalry, what have you, was spurring the guys on, extra songs in the setlist, playing ‘ finally ‘ FINALLY! ‘ ‘Beer In A Bar’. Now, as Serge rightly pointed out, the absence of this song, and the clamoring for said song by Tommy T., Marah fan extraordinaire, had become a thing (when fans in the UK start chanting, ‘Tommy T wants ‘Beer In A Bar'” at shows over there, yeah, it’s a Thing), but in the end, they played it, they played it straight, and they invited Tommy to get up onstage while they played it, Serge giving up his chair, Tommy sitting there with this look of shyness and incredulity and sheer utter happiness, singing harmonies along with Dave, both of them wearing matching army jackets and by coincidence, Santa hats. And you know, sure, it’s a joke, it’s a thing, but it was also this fucking priceless moment, and it’s a damn good song too.
So the whole point of this, actually, was to try to explain Marah to the rest of you, to share what I feel like is the biggest secret in the world. So many people have not even bothered or tried once or felt betrayed by a certain album’s release (I swear, put a banjo on a record once and the insurgent country fans will never, ever let you live it down, ask Jeff Tweedy and Ryan Adams if you don’t believe me). I talk to people in the industry about this band and I get a shrug or total disinterest. ‘The record didn’t do much for me,’ they say. I urge them to check out the live show. ‘Well, I saw them a year or two ago, it was acoustic, not very compelling.’ I explain that it is not quite the same these days, that they’ve found their stride, that they are MISSING Something. And yet, these are the same people who are working themselves into a paroxysm over the likes of Franz Ferdinand and the Arcade Fire and Interpol and I don’t get it. All of that is good music, sure, well-crafted and well-played, and in some cases even with personality and humor, but I am not finding heart and soul and that indefinable thing that makes you ache and yearn and fills the empty places inside, the way I do with Marah.
Can I talk to you about ‘Reservation Girl’? That might help. ‘Reservation Girl’ is, as of this writing, unrecorded, and frankly, I don’t think it could ever be recorded, or at this point, ever should be recorded, because it’s this amorphous energy being in and of itself, it takes on a life of its own every time they play it, it is never the same song or the same feeling and I’m not sure that the band know what’s going to happen every time they play it. I know when I saw them play a show in September, just, you know, your garden variety Marah show, not a special event or anything, ‘Reservation Girl’ was so hard and so pure and so sharp that it made me cry, and when it finished I turned to the boyfriend and said, ‘We have to go tomorrow night.’ (They were playing two blocks from my apartment, but we had chosen to see another show that night, which was why we had driven to Philly for this one.)
So, like I mentioned already, it’s a show-closer. Of course, you’re never quite sure what and when the end of the show is going to be, if Dave is going to follow the list or not (night two of the Marage Thanksgiving shows, he was disavowing all knowledge of the list, but at Sin-e on 9/11, him and Serge got into a fight because Serge had the wrong guitar on, and Dave pointed to the list in frustration). So out of nowhere, you’ll hear the intro notes, kind of shimmering, played at varying speeds, anywhere from achingly slow, with a little bit of delay, to a little bit quicker and brighter, sometimes they go on a little while before Dave starts singing, sometimes they coincide ‘ when they start prior to the vocals, it’s like some kind of clarion call for everyone, the musicians to batten down the hatches, for the fans to take their places and gather their wits about them.
So Dave sings the first verse, slowly, drawing each line out, with that intro melody line repeating itself:
‘i got myself a girl…
took a little ride….
into a desert night…
i talk a little jive…
Now Slo-Mo comes in, those soaring lap steel notes kind of drifting through the melody now, while Dave keeps singing:
‘what’s a man to do…
what’s a man to say…
who says i’m a man….
Okay, are you ready? Because you need to hang on, now the band comes in, BOOM:
“got myself a girl
took a little ride
into a desert night
talk a little jive
got myself a love
love i didn’t need
girl i didn’t need
It’s full band now, full ON band, Dave and Serge singing together, and it’s not exactly singing, depending on the mood, it could be growling, scowling, crooning and some combination between Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Paul Westerberg and Greg Dulli.
“what’s a man to do
what’s a man to say
who says i’m a man
Now it’s trancelike, the energy and momentum are building, getting higher and higher, more and more intense, the sweat is pouring off of both Dave and Serge by now. It’s this energy-raising chant, almost, it’s hypnotic, mantra-like, getting more and more feverish and fervent, sometimes desperate and yearning, sometimes wild and hard:
“got myself a girl
took a little ride
to a desert night
talk a little jive
got myself a love
love i didn’t need
girl i didn’t need
got myself a car
took a little ride
out to save my girl
talk a little jive
got myself a kid
kid i did not want
kid i did not need
what’s a man to do
what’s a man to say
who says i’m a man
So now is right about when all hell breaks loose, Dave will find the nearest bar, ledge, speaker stack, or drum riser to climb on, Serge is going to peel off searing guitar licks and at some point jump off the stage and head into the crowd, he can offer up his guitar as sacrifice for someone to play, he can lie down on the floor and play, he can run out and back again, he can lose himself in the crowd and let us hold him up, and then there is counterpoint between both of them, with Slo-Mo back there somewhere, and it’s chaos and frenzy and sweat and heat and energy and breath and love and fury and anger and yearning, it’s like being whipped around in a rock and roll Tilt-A-Whirl….
…and then, at some point, it has to end. You don’t want it to but it does, you’re trying to find band members wherever they are, they are trying to get back onto the stage ‘ not that anything could, really, possibly follow that and not be anticlimactic in the extreme. It is statement of intent, it is a declaration of war, it is their calling card, it is 6 or 7 minutes of Marah distilled like moonshine into solid form.
And that, I guess, is Marah, or the best I can come to explaining what they are all about, what they are really like. Even though it doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t tell you about ‘Point Breeze’ (my favorite opening line – ‘Headlight cars do battle down the boulevard’) or ‘Christian Street’ (one of my favorites, and equally compelling acoustic or electric) or what ‘Soul’ is like live, how it’s become almost the Marah theme song (‘So turn off all your lights/It’s your favorite song tonight/If you need to spend a while/In the part of you/called Soul’) or the covers, even, I haven’t even gone NEAR the covers, because they’re epic. Everything from ‘Crush On You’ to ‘Bonzo Goes To Bitburg’ to ‘Baba O’Riley’ to ‘Little Bitty Pretty One’ to a drunken version of ‘Dead Flowers’ that would’ve done Ryan Adams proud, and how ‘Round Eye Blues’ is one of the finest post-era Vietnam War songs, and ‘Barstool Boys’ makes me cry, and how they can transform ‘It’s Only Money, Tyrone’ from Philly street ballad to countrified harmonized soul that makes the entire audience hush in awe. And I even ‘ I especially ‘ like the moments that people might term ‘hokey,’ like, say, ‘Pizzeria’ ‘ which, if you hear the background story, will make you like the song better, I think, I had this whole picture of the damn thing in my head once Dave was done telling it. I don’t feel like I’m doing the body of work justice, because it is so broad and deep and there is still so much left in them (at the Indre studios show, Serge made a little speech about being grateful and how he couldn’t believe they had that many records out ‘ to which Dave muttered, ‘Should’ve been seven by now.’)
They are everything you love and yet they are unmistakably themselves, and who they are is so pure and true and shining, even when they fall down there is a nobility to things, it’s not if you fall it’s how you do it ‘ what matters most is how you walk through the fire, as Bukowski said. And Marah walk through the fire with strength and dignity, and an intent that overshadows many if not most. Dave and Serge will make music forever, until you pry the guitars out of their cold dead hands. That’s a promise and a threat, a covenant and a statement, which is something that I’m hard pressed to find in many other places these days. And that’s probably why I’m in it for the long haul, ridiculously obsessed, hopelessly in love with a rock band, once again.
This is not what it should be, but it will do, for now. Because the story is far from over.
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