At the Blue Canoe in Tupelo, there was something very special about watching Dave Bielanko climb onto a bar top and stomp the shit out of it, disrupting the steady stream of cell phone text messaging surrounding it, playing a banjo and harmonizing with Christine Smith, who stood in the middle of the crowd beating the shit out of an old suitcase. They opened both Mississippi shows this way; no microphones, playing in the middle of the crowd, and giving it everything they had on a song called “Falling of the Pine” from a forthcoming project they’re working on called Mountain Minstrelsy. In some strange way, it made me believe there could still be hope for music, as did the reckless abandon with which they backed Blue Mountain. Marah would do a small acoustic set and Blue Mountain would do the same, but when they took the stage together, all hell broke loose. I imagine the same spirits were floating through the air as when the infamous, excellent, but appallingly forgotten Rock and Roll Summer Camp album was recorded. That was back in 1998, when Marah released their debut record on Blue Mountain’s Black Dog label. There’s so much history between these two bands, and it showed in every too-short minute they were on stage together.
Blue Mountain has been on and off again since the early 2000’s, with Cary Hudson and Laurie Stirratt respectively pursuing solo projects, but the Mississippi cult legends seemed to be having a blast playing with Marah on this brief tour of the South. They tore through Cary’s solo “Mississippi Country Girl,” “Midnight in Mississippi” from their 2008 LP of the same name, and “Blue Canoe” from their early masterpiece Dog Days. Later, Hudson channeled Junior Kimbrough through a nasty slide funk on “Skinny Dipping,” and at Proud Larry’s in Oxford, they did a sweat-dripping cover of the Who’s “Squeeze Box.” Although the sets remained similar with both shows, Blue Mountain played with an intensity that kept each note fresh. They could be hushed on songs such as the great “Soul Sister” or create a rave-up with tunes like “Rye Whiskey” from their Roots album. I think the most important thing is that it never became a nostalgia act. They performed like there was no set list and no rules.
As always, Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith played the Marah sets like there was no tomorrow; as if the levees were breaking and hell was on the horizon. They play music like they’re up against the world, which is exactly how it should be played. Whether they’re in the middle of the crowd playing “Phantom Eyes,” on top of the bar belting a drunken “Barstool Boys,” or on the stage kicking your ass with “The Catfisherman,” the common observation is that these two are not bullshitting. They, too, can be hushed with jaw-dropping, beautiful harmonies on songs such as “Within the Spirit Sagging.” Christine Smith shined brightly on the musical “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Walt Whitman Bridge,” which Dave let her capably handle as he stepped from the stage with a fizzing beer and a microphone to do an inebriated-Sinatra-street poet shtick that really made his down and out lyrics fly. Bielanko seemed especially sentimental about his history with Blue Mountain and Mississippi by never straying too far from those early days of his band. Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight cuts like “Baby Love,” “Fever,” “Phantom Eyes,” and “Limb” were all played with a raging intensity, the latter of which was turned into an explosive Philly/Irish/Mississippi Mud stomp in Tupelo when Dave traded the normal banjo for an electric guitar while Cary Hudson drove the beat behind him by trying to pound holes in the drum skins. It felt like it never should have ended.
Ultimately, those moments of sheer celebration were the highlights. Dave Bielanko stood next to me in the crowd during Blue Mountain’s solo set and sang every word to the songs they were singing, and it made me realize how much admiration and respect these two bands have for each other. The joyous Rock and Roll Summer Camp album was resurrected several times over the two shows. Ol’ George Sheldon was in attendance at Proud Larry’s and joined the bands on stage to revive his “S.O.B.,” while Dave tore into “The River,” making it sound more off-the-cuff than it did fifteen years ago when it was recorded. The Oxford show in particular seemed like a family affair, which was illustrated when they all jumped from the stage and performed a front-porch styled, uplifiting version of the gospel "I'll Fly Away" in the middle of the audience. It was apparent that both bands felt “at home”; Cary and Laurie basically were, and Dave is sort of an adopted son of the town. In “Tramp Art,” on Marah’s last record, Bielanko sang, “I’m Mississippi but I don’t know how”, which I think is the general feeling of the many long-time fans of the band I met at the Oxford show. No one really knows how Marah found an immediate home in Oxford right out of the gate, and no one cares. They’re just glad it happened.
As a personal aside, I’d like to say a few words about the bands. As a struggling writer and musician, I become incredibly jaded and weary of music and its industry at times. Writing for Examiner and other outlets, I’ve met and even interviewed a fair share of musicians. Laurie Stirratt and Cary Hudson were very accessible and very appreciative of the people that came out to the shows. Perhaps I’ve met the wrong bands, but it was shocking to see such gratitude. Over the last several years, Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith have been very kind and generous to me by granting time and interviews for the articles I’ve written on them. At the Blue Canoe in Tupelo, many people did not get in to see the show, and Dave and Christine wanted to go into the parking lot and play a few songs for those people. That type of attitude and work ethic is truly inspiring. It makes it very easy to stand in the corner of these two bands who genuinely BELIEVE in the music they make, and they work hard for it. If they’re ever in the area again, whether together or separate, do yourself a favor and don’t miss it.
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