An album full of mysteries, discoveries and pure joy
Awhile back, my friends in Marah asked me to do an item on their new single advancing the release of their Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania album.
Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? is a labor of love, but sometimes the love of paying the bills takes so much time that there’s not much time for the labor of love. David Bielanko’s request for an item came at one of those times. The idea kept getting moved, of necessity, to the end of the list. Eventually, as happens with many to-do lists — at least mine — it fell off altogether.
So when the album was finally released on Feb. 25, I realized I had to get my hands on a copy and find a few minutes to make up for letting that opportunity slip away.
So I placed my order and waited.
The package containing the top-quality vinyl, along with CD and download code, arrived Tuesday. The mail carrier foolishly left the big, flat package lying on the floor of my garage. It was a well-intentioned move, to ensure the package was out the way of any possible rain or other bad weather. But it wasn’t left in the center. It was placed smack in the path of the right-side tires. Lucking the garage was empty, and I found the package before my better half came home, where she surely would have run over the package.
I’m no vinylphile. I don’t have the space to collect stuff. But I’ve got to say this was a package I was looking forward to opening.
It’s a beautiful slab of monophonic — yep, you read that right! — black vinyl in a B&W gatefold sleeve. It made me want to play it right away, to discover its mysteries.
It’s full of mysteries, discoveries and pure joy.
It’s a completely joyful new direction for Marah, one of the world’s best, and most underappreciated, roots-rock bands.
Bielanko and partner Christine Smith, the only remaining ongoing members of Marah, left Brooklyn a few years ago, and headed to Pennsylvania, where David and brother Serge started Marah. But instead of taking heading back to Philadelphia, the duo headed west on I-80 and ended up settling around Loganton, Pa. I talked to them about their trek, and the beginnings of this project, a couple of years ago. You can read all of that here.
After a couple of years of planning, playing and recording, Marah and some of their Central Pennsylvania friends have produced a completely celebratory album of 11 songs based on some century-old lyrics from an old book.
This is not the Marah we’ve come to know and love. Mountain Minstrelsy is Marah from another time. But it’s not Marah dressed up in costumes, as if they were Civil War reenactors playing at something.
Mountain Minstrelsy is Marah actually living the down-home lyrics delivered by bunch of spirited musicians who sound like they’re gathered around the campfire, bashing out time-honored tunes.
There’s a sense of authenticity that inhabits the songs, even though they are completely re-imagined from the original sources, with new melodies and reworked lyrics.
David delivers most of the vocals with his distinctive, gritty voice in tandem with a spoonful of sweetness from Christine’s. They’re accompanied by a variety of neighbors and friends from Central Pennsylvania, including 8-year-old fiddler, banjo-player and song savant Gus Tritsch, who wrote and sings the track “Harry Bell.”
“Ten Cents at the Gate” is probably the most rewarding tune on an album that’s packed with great songs. It features a huge chorus, the oompah of a tuba, some shrieking and melodic and lyric quotations from a variety of familiar old-timey tunes, including “In the Sweet Bye and By,” a familiar Christian hymn with lyrics by S. Fillmore Bennett and music by Joseph P. Webster. Listen closely and see what other songs you can find buried in this one.
Marah has always given at least 100 percent to its listeners. But that given has has come at a high cost. The band often seemed to be in crisis, accompanied by massive turnover in personnel. But for now, it feels like David and Christine have found Marah’s true center, creatively and emotionally.
If you buy only one physical copy of an album this year, Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania is the one you should get. It’s a bargain at just $20, and you can order it here. You won’t regret it.