The first time I saw Marah perform live was when the Bielanko brothers joined Bruce Springsteen onstage at Giants Stadium in Jersey during The Rising tour. I was sitting so far up in the bleachers that I couldn’t really see what they looked like — even with the aid of the giant video screens. And I sure as hell couldn’t hear what they sounded like, as whatever song they were playing was drowned out by the big noise created by the E Street Band.
But I figured if Marah had the Springsteen stamp of approval, they were definitely a band worth looking into. As I began to discover Marah for myself, starting with last year’s wonderful If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry, it quickly became apparent just why Springsteen counts himself as a fan.
Based out of Philadelphia, Marah have been making records and playing a pretty much non-stop string of shows for about ten years now. Their specialty, for lack of a better description, is a sort of folk-punk hybrid. Think something along the lines of the Jayhawks crossed with someone like the Ramones and you’d be pretty close to dead on the money.
Marah play these really cool romanticized songs — mostly written by brothers David and Serge Bielanko — about, among other things, relationships, heartbreak and a healthy dose of drinking. They just happen to play many of them at a breakneck sort of frenetic pace much of the time, especially in a live setting like the one captured here.
These guys basically ooze a working class folkie sincerity that has won them a devoted cult-like following, not unlike the early days of Mr. Springsteen himself. (Like I said, it’s easy to see why the Boss is a fan.) At the same time, Marah’s heart is never worn so far up its sleeve that it gets in the way of them playing the sort of raucous, borderline drunken brand of good time rock and roll that they do here.
Performing here at what looks to be a bar in Spain (you can see rows of liquor bottles lined up neatly behind the band in several frames), Marah comes across first and foremost as a band that really enjoys playing. In fact, they appear to be having a great time. The band opens up with the rocking one-two punch of “It’s Only Money Tyrone” segueing into a version of “Night Time” that rips the joint with Ramones like intensity. From there, they slip right into the darker, moodier feel of “Barstool Boys” without missing a beat.
As expected, most of the songs from If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry (a record that David Bielanko boasts got a critics rating of “eight out of five stars”) are performed here. The best of these show why you can’t box a band like Marah into a neat little category.
“The Apartment” reads as a sad love letter to Serge Bielanko’s wife while he is away on the road. Setting the song’s bittersweet lyrics up with a story (did I mention these guys are also great storytellers?), Serge tells of making late night drunken calls to his wife. One of the lyrics actually reads “I’ve been known to drunk dial you,” before revealing that “tonight I just want to come back to our apartment in the city.” Brother David all the while breaks up all the seriousness by holding a lighter over Serge’s head arena-rock concert style.
Another of If You Didn’t Laugh‘s best tracks, “Sooner Or Later” plays almost like a Celtic sort of drinking song, with an irresistible guitar hook that sounds more like a violin or fiddle playing it. You could almost dance a jig to this tune.
On “For The Price Of A Song” Serge sets the song up with yet another great story about the plane turbulence the band encountered on the flight over. As the turbulence hits its most frightening point and Serge confesses he thought Marah would soon be “swimming with the fishes,” he prays about having to spend eternity with his bandmates and not wanting to “sleep next to these guys forever.” It’s a priceless moment that illustrates that Marah is not just a band to these guys, but a brotherhood as well.
Elsewhere, and in between David Bielanko’s repeated assurances to his audience that this would be the band’s best show ever (like they needed it), Marah basically just plays its ass off and clearly has a great time doing it. In addition to the great original songs here, there are also well chosen covers of Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” and briefly, Modest Mouse’s “Float On.”
In addition to the full performance offered on the DVD, there is also a shorter seven song live audio CD. The DVD extras consist mainly of other assorted live performances, most notably one where Nick Hornby reads a humorously bizarre poem, mostly about being drunk, before the band does a fine cover version of Ronnie Lane’s “Debris.”
Although some of the video editing effects are a little corny — split screens pop up quite a bit here — Sooner Or Later In Spain more than lives up to Marah’s considerable reputation as a must see live band. Until they next play in my neck of the woods, this one will be getting heavy rotation on my DVD player at home.