It’s “Marah Week” on OLG’s Instagram and social media—every day, we’re posting images of different showprint we’ve designed for the band, along with some behind the scenes photos. What’s the occasion? We wanted to celebrate their incredible new album, Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennysylvania, by giving away a copy of the album to one reader of this blog. Marah previewed Mountain Minstrelsy at a memorable B-Side show a little while back.
Wait, you ask. This band you adore played in your office?
You know, it was the luckiest thing…
I first heard South Philly’s Marah back in the late, late 90s, and by the time I’d left my old job and started a new one—the one I still have—they joined You Am I and The Ike Reilly Assassination as the soundtrack to throwing (almost) everything you have away, only to start all over again. What I had found lacking in my life, and what I found inspiring about these three bands, was passion. Pure, blinding passion, along with purpose, direction, vision and tons and tons and tons of volume.
Marah had this song called “Barstool Boys” on Kids in Philly, which came out in 2000, and I used to listen to it driving home from my old job. It has this line in it, “I don’t even hold the wheel when I’m driving.”
And man, I didn’t.
The next line was “I don’t ever look behind me in the mirror.”
I liked that line even more than the other one.
Fast forward a few years, and in 2005 the band put out If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry. It’s still in my top ten, maybe top five of all time. If you were around me at the time, I inevitably handed you a new copy of it. I loved everything—all the songs, all the lyrics, all the false starts and ragged endings, the handwritten lyrics and drawings in the booklet.
Around this time I started working with a consultant about OLG and she asked me to write about what I dreamt OLG could be someday, and I wrote that I hoped it could be like If You Didn’t Laugh sounded. (I still feel that way.)
These were days that illustrated why this company is called One Lucky Guitar, and soon enough we were able to do some design work for the band. I saw them play at venues all over the country; in front of a couple thousand at Stubb’s in Austin, in front of a couple dozen at the Pike Room in Detroit. Indianapolis, Toledo, even Asbury Park. The only thing you knew for sure is it was going to be sweaty, loud and cathartic. Bruce Springsteen used to have that “I’m just a prisoner…of rock & roll!” line in his shows, and Marah brought that sentiment screaming to life. And if you felt that way, too, it was impossible to not fall madly in love with their music.
In 2010, we were doing ten shows for Lucky Ten, celebrating ten years of One Lucky Guitar. (The reality is OLG didn’t incorporate until 2004, but we were already sweating and trying to be really really loud, whether it was recognized by the secretary of state or not.) We had a few dream “gets” on the Lucky Ten list, and Marah was one. And unbelievably, we got them. The band was touring behind their new album Life Is a Problem, a ridiculously great, shambolic collection of songs recorded rawly, after they’d moved from Brooklyn to rural PA.
They loved Fort Wayne, and more specifically, The Brass Rail, and asked to come back the following year, and in 2012, too. In 2012, Marah was touring with Blue Mountain—the “Marah” in Brass Rail co-owners John and Corey’s own version of this very story.
Did the three of us ever dream we’d be hosting two of our all-time favorite bands to play a show together at a rock bar both bands loved, in a town that used to not have rock bars anybody could love?
We can’t remember if we did or did not.
Leading up to that show, we reached out to Marah to see if they would be willing to do an acoustic “matinee” show at OLG in the early evening, before the sweaty, loud rock show at the Rail. We knew Marah’s Dave and Christine had been doing some duo shows in Pennsylvania, and the fact was, for all the rave-ups and wheels-on-fire music on their albums, it was often balanced with the sweetness and sadness of an equally raw approach to folk and acoustic music.
Marah was down.
We’d hosted a few shows in our office before (David Bazan, Mark Hutchins, Ike Reilly), but this was the first show after we’d reworked our office and officially named a space within it “The B-Side”—with modest ambitions to do something that would make Portland jealous.
On the best B-Side nights—and this was one of them—we think that’s happening.
1. We can’t really do any of this B-Side business without our clients, and a few of them came to this Marah show. They were floored, sending me curse word-laden texts after the gig. That was pretty great.
2. Before the show, Marah was hanging out in our office. We showed them the Your Story Made Here video about the music scene around here. They loved it, and our good friend (and YSMH shooter) John Burkett shot the Marah set on The B-Side.
3. We also had a memorable exchange with the band’s singer, David Bielanko, who noticed that Nate Utesch had a tape deck on his desk.
DB: A tape deck? That’s cool. We’ve been playing around with tapes; put our last record out on cassette.
NU: That’s awesome. I’ve been listening to a ton of Phil Collins on cassette tape with this thing.
DB: I bet you have.
4. Here’s one of my all-time favorite photos. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry, indeed. Marah’s van, and ours:
At this point, Marah was working on Mountain Minstrelsy, a collection of songs based around an old book of folk lyrics, collected by Henry Shoemaker and published in the early 1930s. None of the lyrics included music, few included source material or references. Marah decided to write with the ghosts, and worked on melodies, music and additional lyrics to breathe new life into the songs. They played two of the Mountain Minstrelsy songs at The B-Side and, earlier this year, finally released the record.
Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania was recorded on reel-to-reel tape in a barn and a church, and features a wild cast of characters from the rural town Marah now calls home—most notably, an eight-year-old fiddle player named Gus.
The album raw, ragged, real, rollicking and rambunctious. Most importantly, it’s alive, here and now.
It’s an amazing thing when your favorite band is making the best music of its career right in front of your eyes. I felt that way with If You Didn’t Laugh, felt it again with Life Is a Problem, and nowMountain Minstrelsy has blown me away all over again.
Earlier this week, we promised to tease another show. Why don’t we all plan on getting together in September 2014.
Luckier things have happened, right?
Here’s to Marah, and all the other prisoners of rock & roll out there.
PS Leave a note below (or on Facebook) by midnight on Monday, May 5th, and we’ll do a random drawing of all commenters to give away a vinyl copy of Mountain Minstrelsy to one winner. Go the extra mile and tell us about your favorite band making your favorite album, or the way things you never thought could happen actually can happen, and rather easily. (All it takes is hard work, belief, passion, sweat and some really, really loud music.)
Vivitar photos by Drew Kora. No filters or retouching; scanned direct from film prints.