Marah’s Christmas shows are justifiably legendary. Now based in central PA but originally hailing from the Conshohocken area of Philadelphia, the band clearly knows how to throw a kickin’ party. This year’s festivities were held at the City of Brotherly Love’s Underground Arts, a dark, industrial basement venue that probably hasn’t experienced such pure musical joy since… well, LAST year’s Marah Christmas show.
Marah’s recipe for a jolly good time blends several simple, deliciously entertaining ingredients. First ingredient: A slew of beautifully crafted songs courtesy of Dave & Serge, aka, the Brothers Bielanko — the kind that paint memorable pictures while conveying poignantly literate yet down-and-dirty stories that probe the core of real, deeply lived human situations and emotions.
Stir in some unbelievably gorgeous melodies (courtesy again of Dave and Serge, supplemented by lap steel maestro Mike “Slo-mo” Brenner), some kickass, crunching rock guitars and/or fine acoustic strumming (thanks to Dave, Serge and longtime sideman Adam Garbinski), plus some alternatingly soaring, then purring lap steel licks from Slo-mo. Maybe even add a banjo (by Dave) and some funky percussive accents by the always exploring yet ever tasteful Hoagie Wing.
Ground that in some booming, driving bass licks by Adam or Slo-mo and nonstop, balls-to-the-wall skins-pounding by a monster of a drummer who clearly has rock ‘n’ roll in his soul, i.e., Dave Peterson.
If that ain’t tasty enough for ya, top it all off with a bit of soaring and deliciously soulful horn playing by the masterful Philly trumpeteer Matt Cappy and Tony Gairo on sax, aka the Poppin’ John Horns. Past shows have also included a cheery, holiday-clad choir consisting of former members of local girl-band the Shalitas, but alas, this year they weren’t included. (Perhaps the stage just wasn’t big enough?)
To set a cheekily festive, Philly-themed vibe, Marah started the whole thing off with a grand entrance to blaring “Rocky”-themed music. The diverse crowd — which included, along with the band’s regular diehard fans, folks from all ages and stages of life, from white-haired 60+ year-olds to young urban hipsters with extensive tattoos and nose rings, plus a few camouflaged, straggly-bearded guys who looked like they had just strolled in from the set of Duck Dynasty — ate it up as the band dove straight into “Christian St.”
Oh yeah — don’t forget the Santa costumes, constantly swirling simulated snow (which eventually left the frontmost band members completely drenched and dripping), and a late visit to the stage by Santa himself, accompanying the band on rollicking versions of seasonal classics like Chuck Berry’s “Run, Run, Rudolf,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Auld Lang Syne” and even “Hava Nagila.”
As Dave shouted in glee at one point, “It’s Christmas and Grandpa’s got his fuckin’ banjo out!” And then there was the ceremonial drawing of tickets from a hat for Xmas presents from the band, while Serge sang “White Christmas” off-key in a white curly whig to which he slowly added the rest of Santa’s gear, awkwardly transforming himself into jolly old St. Nick before the audience’s eyes.
As they say, you can’t make this shit up.
Oh, and – look! – there’s Serge diving out into the audience for a long harmonica solo/stroll/comic monologue in mid-song, snaking his way (sans microphone – where the hell did that go??) all the way to the back of the cavernous room to hug a gentleman who seemed to be doing his best to remain a wallflower (yer outta luck, buddy, this here’s a MARAH show!) — and finally, on his way back to the stage, receiving a spontaneous kiss from an adoring fan.
Whew! I’m exhausted just recalling it all. Naturally the band was entirely, visibly spent after 2+ hours of hosting such a wild extravaganza. They didn’t do an encore — not a single one, which is kind of mindblowing for anyone who has ever seen them — but nobody seemed to mind. We sure as hell got our money’s worth, and our inner eardrums were pretty well wrung (rung?) out by that point anyway.
Plus there was the almost unbelievable fact that, as Dave giddily announced at the start of the whole shebang, the band had spent the earlier part of the day, on their way to the show, GETTING A BABY DELIVERED, in the person of little Johnny Peterson, the freshly arrived offspring of drummer Dave and his wife Martina.
How the fuck Dave P. managed to pound away through the entire show after all that excitement is a minor miracle and a major mystery. Pure adrenaline, I guess.
The other Dave’s (Bielanko’s) summary of the day’s craziness put a wonderfully boastful, Marah-style cap on it all: “We had a son TODAY. We had a BABY on the way here. I mean, we can get away with ANYTHING!”
And indeed they can, and did.
Bottom line: If you haven’t attended one of Marah’s Christmas shows yet, you owe it to yourself to enjoy that experience at least once before you kick off. Like I said, they throw one HELL of a party.
P.S. — The set list photo comes courtesy of superfan and “Queen of the Marahstafarians” Jennifer Husbands, who flew all the way from Chicago to attend the show. If you think that’s impressive another fan flew in from Iowa, and there’s a guy online who – having heard the word and seen the pix – is promising to fly in from Czechoslovakia next year.
To tease us even more, Marah circulated a bunch of photos online from pre-show rehearsals in their new, partially-constructed recording studio in Central PA, and rumour has it they’ve been working up a batch of new songs to record. Make sure you get your tickets for the 2019 show ASAP!