For a few years, Marah was perhaps the best band in Philadelphia. From the time of their first album, 1998's
Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight
, through the glory days of 2000's
Kids in Philly
, Marah played ecstatic, sweaty rock-and-roll shows in the tradition of the Replacements and the Faces nearly every month. Fronted by brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko, Marah packed the Khyber, the Tin Angel, and the old Pontiac with local disciples, and Steve Earle, Nick Hornby, and Bruce Springsteen championed the band.
But after they decamped to England to record 2002's overproduced Float Away With the Friday Night Gods, problems began: the Bielanko brothers abandoned Philly for Brooklyn and band members came and went at an alarming rate. The Bielankos still released excellent albums, but on the eve of the tour for one of the best, 2008's Angels of Destruction!, the band imploded yet again. It should have been called Angels of Self-Destruction!
A new Marah came to World Cafe Live on Sunday night. Serge is on sabbatical, out West raising a family, and keyboard player Christine Smith is the only holdover from Angels; she and Dave are now Marah, and they have a new album, aptly titled Life Is a Problem, coming out on their own label. They offered copies, on cassette (!), at the show.
"This is the turning point, and we're forced to carry on," Dave said before launching into a hard-charging version of "Christian St." midway through their two-hour set. And they carried on admirably, with able help from brand-new guitarist Bruce Derr, bassist/trumpeter Mark Sosnoskie, and drummer Martin Lynds.
"Valley Farm Song," "Within the Spirits Sagging," and other new songs put a folk-punk spin on old-time country sounds. Smith often took Serge's roles on vocals, tambourine, and harmonica on old favorites like "Faraway You" and "Limb," which featured bagpipes and an extra electric guitar, from Blue Mountain's Cary Hudson, who opened the show with a pleasing acoustic set.
The show was full of Dave's great, frayed vocals and passionate guitar and electric banjo playing - and of Philly-centric touches (a rousing version of the Rocky theme; songs about the Walt Whitman Bridge, Point Breeze, and catfishing in the Delaware River). Still, Serge brought a communal, fraternal spirit to Marah, and without him the show lacked the guitar duels, the vocal interplay and, ultimately, some of the ineffable joy of the past.