Monday night, after storms gave way to the humid heat of the night, Marah rolled through Memphis and rattled the walls of the Hi Tone Café. Despite the slight crowd and the absence of a scheduled opening act (John Dee Graham), the band seemed content to play like it was their last ever.
After the launch of the “Theme from Rocky” by Bill Conti, the banjo chug of “Limb” gave way to a string of folk-punk gems from Marah’s entire catalogue, including “Formula, Cola, Dollar Draft,” “So What If We’re Outta Tune,” “Body,” and “Barstool Boys.” The show was brilliantly paced by sandwiching roaring rockers between the “pretty” songs, as leader Dave Bielanko described them. The roar came with “The Catfisherman” and “It’s Only Money, Tyrone” from the band’s brilliant Kids in Philly and later with “Freedom Park” from 20,000 Streets Under the Sky.
Marah was better equipped this time around with a drummer and bass player, which really fleshed out most of the songs, but Bielanko and pianist (and harp player and accordion player and percussionist, etc. etc.) Christine Smith are magical with their musical exchanges, which was evident in the beautiful new “Within the Spirit Sagging” and the vaudeville inspired “You Can’t Take It With You.”
The most amazing thing about this band in concert is that they can literally play anything and make it their own. From the traditional (“Bright Morning Stars”) to Sinatra (“Young at Heart”) to polka (“Alabama Jubilee,” which they dedicated to their small, rural Pennsylvania community), Marah played it all with a fervor that no other band today possesses. Of course, the highlights of the show belonged to them. There’s something very special about Dave Bielanko picking a banjo, and when he fired up the “Gypsy dance” of “Phantom Eyes” and led right into “Faraway You,” it was about eight or nine minutes of pure euphoria.
What’s hard to believe is that they did this with about ten people there. For them, it was probably another run-of-the-mill Memphis show, but for the ones in attendance, it was extremely inspiring. Later, Bielanko told me that he’s made his peace with Memphis, yet it’s still not enough. Memphis is the place where rock and soul were properly blended for the first time, and in many ways, this band is a direct byproduct of those sounds. Yet, of all places, Marah can’t seem to break through in Memphis after nearly fifteen years as a band. There’s something terribly wrong with this, and it leads one to believe that the Memphis of old is gone.
At the end of the night, Dave and Christine gave the dedicated and boisterous few in the front an encore. With busted strings hanging, they played beautiful renditions of “East” and “Sure Thing,” and then it was over. One thing is for sure about this band; whether they’re playing a porch party in Oxford, a packed bar in Europe, or for a handful in Memphis, Marah gives all of themselves and their music on stage. Hopefully, another sunrise is coming their way in the near future. There is absolutely no band today more deserving.