A beloved and extraordinary rock band finds that a second life can be even better than the first.
By Steve Houk
You know that old saying, “you never know what you got until its gone”? Or something like that?
Well, whatever that saying is could easily refer to the exceptional Pennsylvania-borne band Marah who, after 20-plus years of grinding it out, recording great music and playing epically euphoric shows to adoring fans all over the place, called it quits, and for a host of pretty common reasons lots of bands break up: people grow up and want another life, or they just grow apart, or it’s just time.
For Marah co-founder/singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Bielanko, there was really no other life, no other choice. Music was him, and he was music. The end of the band hit him hard, real hard, but he did what lifetime musicians do, he survived, playing music even without his beloved band.
But five years later, a sort of miracle happened, well, a miracle as far as already broken-up rock bands go.
“It’s all kind of a little bit surprising ‘cuz we weren’t planning to bring ourselves back together,” Bielanko told me recently as the band readied for its upcoming tour. “It just started in 2015 with reissuing (2000’s Kids In Philly) for its fifteenth anniversary which was something that we had really wanted to do. And then one thing led to another, and we had a party to celebrate it, and it felt good to play. Everybody was at a kinda different place in their life, and the music kinda meant something different.”
Thankfully for both the reunited band and their rabid fan base, it looks like Marah — a band writer Stephen King once called “the best rock band in America nobody knows” — may be in for an extended second wind. They’re playing a few reunion shows on the East Coast this summer, including the first place they played after reuniting in 2015, Vienna’s Jammin Java on July 29th, followed by the Bowery Ballroom in NYC and a closer to home gig in Sellersville PA, all before they head over to Spain for a number of shows in October. And rumblings are that a new record isn’t far away. Marah is back…something not fathomed a few years back.
Bielanko speaks rather eloquently, especially for a weathered, seasoned rocker, when he talks about the wonder of Marah’s rebirth, and how a second chance can be even sweeter than the first, given you’ve already been down a long road together.
“Pretty much the second we stepped back onstage together, we were laughing and smiling,” Bielanko said effusively. “And it was like, wow, all of that experience exists somewhere within you, and it doesn’t go anywhere. That was kind of one of the big motivators, that stepping back into it when we’re 150 yards down the field already. Being in a band suddenly meant something that it didn’t mean when we were going through it six nights a week just because that’s what you did from the time you were 15 years old. I think it might have been the same with anybody who had been in a good band or worked as hard as we did, playing six nights a week in bullshit night clubs or whatever, you develop something, and we had that. It wasn’t alot of work coming back because we’d done all that work. It felt really good. I think it’s a pretty cool and slightly righteous reason to play music.”
Did Bielanko ever think the band would get back together after their 2010 split?
“Hell no. The only thing that’s making it quite as special as it might be right now is the fact that it did go away and it went away for all the people that it meant something to. It was completely gone, no one had thought it was gonna come back. My brother (and bandmate Serge Bielanko) had children, and wasn’t available to me anymore. So I kept growing in the way that I could, and to all of a sudden have it come back, it’s more valuable.”
After their breakup, Bielanko looked at any way to make music, and much-needed relief came in a most unlikely but astounding way, the stunning collection Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, a unique project based on the songs and writings of Henry Shoemaker that came about when he and bandmate Christine Smith took on a project that surprised even them.
“At that point in time, I didn’t have a rock and roll band, I couldn’t think of anything to do. I had a big tape recorder and someone offered us this church in this tiny little town, and we said wouldn’t it be cool if we made a band out of these local people and we wrote these old songs. It kind of worked but it was such a rewarding and cool thing to do. We mad a couple thousand records and sold them all and that’s it. Closed up the shop. As far as Henry Shoemaker, we were drinking in some cabin one night and this guy brought down a book from his attic, and I couldn’t even believe it existed. I was looking through it and the romantic notion of it hit me pretty and I kept doubling back to it and looking at those songs and realizing no one knew anything about any of that music. You couldn’t even tell if it was true or if it was fabricated after the fact. That’s the cool thing about art, you know, you grab what you can at the moment, and that’s where it ended up.
Bielanko doesn’t hold back when talking about what the future could hold as a result of the band’s serendipitous reunion. He wants he and his band family to complete the story, and that means hitting the studio.
“We have to. There’s this bottomless hole in people like us, you can’t fake it. It was cool to get back together once and play in front of people, and then maybe do that five times, but then it’s like, where is it going? It has to be headed somewhere in order for us to feel validated. So the next obvious place it points to is to start to think about, what would we say? What would happen next if we were to make another record, and then that starts the wheel turning. It’s all lined up in a pretty cool way. I can’t tell you for sure that’s gonna go down that way, but I would really like to see that happen.”
Part of Marah’s legend, and part of what makes their return so exciting to their fans across the world, is their exulting live experience, and Bielanko and his Marah bandmates – brother Serge, Smith, Adam Garbinski, Dave Petersen and Mark Sosnoskie are elated that both band and crowd are feeling like the magic is back when they hit the boards.
“The coolest thing that’s happening is the looks on our faces when we walk on stage. And people are smart, they get alot out of it as long as you’re putting alot out. People are walking away from these shows like they really saw something. And I reckon that they really did. And that’s what we value more than anything right now. There’s not too too many people who can really do that, and that’s cool. We’re lucky to have it in our corner. But we did it the hard way, and didn’t really realize we were doing that back then, maybe. To have it is a kind of gift now in 2016. It’s something great.”
Marah performs Friday July 29th at Jammin’ Java, 227 Maple Ave E Vienna, VA 22180. For tickets, click here.