“It was hard to believe that some of these songs had faded so far so fast,” Dave Bielanko says. “We felt like if someone of our generation didn’t have a go at them they’d perhaps vanish completely.”
He’s talking about his latest project under the Marah monicker – Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, a vibrant recording of songs collected by folklorist Henry Shoemaker in his 1931 book of the same name. Bielanko says the undertaking was the kind of idea musicians get all the time over beers: you think about how you’re going to record, you think about the types of rooms you’re going to play, you plan exciting and ambitious things – but don’t always follow through.
“Usually these big ideas fade away the next day,” he says . “But this time we didn’t let go, we kept pushing.”
When Marah caught the ear of the Philly music scene in the late 90s, it was revered locally and internationally as an outstanding live band. As we hear in this week’s Key Session – graciously guest engineered by Adam Staniszewski of StanzStudios – it still is an outstanding live band, though of a completely different sort. The instrumentation is acoustic and organic, not electric and rock club-ready; the beats come from snappy bootstomps more than hammering drums. The bass is upright and banjo is prominent. Christine Smith’s warm vocals match the old-timey arrangements, while Bielanko’s counterpoint singing has the same husky swagger as always, keeping a healthy mix of old and new Marah.
Probably the biggest surprise in the Mountain Minstrelsy ensemble is the 10 year old bandmate Gus Tritsch. He’s an ace fiddle player, and totally shreds (if “shred” can be used in a folk sense) on his lead parts, but also steps to the vocal mic for a roaring delivery on the lively, raucous parable called “Rattlesnake.”
Bielanko says that Tritsch “lives in the shadow of that church we recorded in” near the band’s new home base of Millheim in Central Pa. His proximity led to him becoming part of the project.
“At this point in my life I don’t believe I could possibly learn too much about music from anyone except a kid like Gus,” Bielanko says. “His fearlessness, his instincts. Watching him playing punk rock without really knowing what ‘punk rock’ is…performing this stuff live with him is an honor, he is a badass. We swap records now, for Christmas I gave him Every Picture Tells a Story.”
Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania came out last week; Marah plays Pittsburgh this weekend, Washington D.C. next weekend, and is shaping up plans for the summer. But, Bielanko says, “like a lot of cool things, we are not forever, we are not a ‘catch em next time’ kinda band. I love that aspect too.”
Listen and download Marah’s Key Studio Session below, and order Mountain Minstrelsy here.
Marah, The Key Studio Sessions