XPoNential Artist Spotlight: Keeping mountain minstrelsy alive with Marah

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Marah | Photo courtesy of the artist
Marah | Photo courtesy of the artist

The underdog set of this XPoNential Music Festival belongs to Marah – one known as a raucous Philadelphia rock band, now a raucous Central Pennsylvania folk band. Led by Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith, its project of late is the excellent 2014 offering Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, where the six-piece recorded its own rearrangements and renditions of songs collected in 1931 by folklorist Harry Shoemaker.

This is where the underdog aspect comes in: as Dave explains, the songs they drew from – while they are as striking and resonant in a modern context as I imagine they might have been three-quarters of a century ago – are nonetheless the music of the people, everyday real people, the sort that cultural critics might tend to eschew and not anthologize in favor of somebody more…I don’t know…poetic. But this is poetry nevertheless.

What began as a simple recording project has blossomed into something that has taken the Mountain Minstrelsy Marah to Spain for tour dates and brought it back to Philly this weekend for the XPoNential Music Festival. I swapped emails with Dave about the growth of the project, the shadow of Woody Guthrie, and what we can expect from the band’s not-so-secret weapon – 10-year-old fiddle prodigy Gus Tritsch – when the band takes the stage today. Read on below.

The Key: When Mountain Minstrelsy was released this spring, there weren’t a whole lot of live gigs in support of it — you played, but it wasn’t like there was a big cross-country tour. It felt like you were choosing your shows carefully, looking for settings that were the right fit for these songs. Would you say that’s the case?

Dave Bielanko: Yes, when we dreamed this album up I (personally) never even considered playing it live…it just never came up…when the opportunity presented itself, we agreed…then we were surprised at how good it worked/felt right out of the box…now it has grown into something I feel is pretty great, it has value, folks who come to these shows have been walking out feeling like they really just “saw something”…whatever that is I’m very proud of it.

TK: You did play some dates in Spain this June – was that full-band, or just Dave and Christine? How was the music received?

DB: Full band, really great, they killed it. All these “Mountain Minstrelsy” shows have been full band shows. We just played Azkena Rock Festival (a big hard rock fest in the North of Spain, Basque Country) we closed the Friday night after The Scorpions on a big ass stage, it was like a magical, jetlagged dream, Gus up there fiddling away in the lights and smoke machines, all covered in laminates and plastic VIP wristbands, so cool. The rented stand up bass (literally) fell apart during our first song but it didn’t even matter, the spirit of the Spanish rock n roll fans could lift a school bus off you, all the bands sounded tremendous, it was raining but you didn’t even notice it. Spain is another world all together when it comes to rock n roll.

TK: It’s such a cool idea for project, digging into an old songbook for this century-old music. I’m sure you get this comparison a lot (and I apologize if you’re sick of hearing it!) but it feels like what Wilco and Billy Bragg did with Woody Guthrie’s music. They were able to get several albums out of that project – do you think there might be a Mountain Minstrelsy Volume 2?

DB: Thanks! “California Stars” is a great song, but here’s a thing…Woody MF’n Guthrie wrote those song lyrics…and there’s a good argument for him being one of the greatest song lyric writers we’ve ever known. (google “Talkin’ Hard Work Blues” if you think I’m lying.) Our source material was a bit more??? I dunno “spotty”? It took a lot of work for us to find a record hiding in there. This stuff came “whispered down the lane” from obscure hillbilly, lumberjacks and poor mountain folks so that gave our whole undertaking a very different underdog spirit, a punk rock feeling, it felt like we were maybe even doing something “good” for some pre-ASCAP uncelebrated forgotten songwriters. Ghosts. It also felt nice to not have Woody or Hank Williams looking over your shoulder as you worked. We were able to just be ourselves and just chase down whatever album it was going to become, keep ourselves present, see where it all would lead…nobody was fighting over these over songs anyway, it was just laying there to be done.

A 2nd volume would be great fun, it would enable us to play a few other festivals next summer too…hmm?? Something to think about…I’ve also considered setting up a “midnight ramble” kinda thing too in our little central Pennsylvania town, a juke joint kind of environment, 3rd Sunday nights or something, buckets of beer cans, tip jar, drag in an old piano. Invite other good bands, That would be fun. I like the accessibility of folk music, there’s enough bullshit out there as it is.

TK: Have you resurrected any songs from the Marah back-catalogue to give them the Mountain Minstrelsy treatment, or is your live show primarily focused on this album and these songs?

DB: Yeah, at this point these guys know a whole bunch of Marah songs too, Christine knows Marah songs I’ve never even heard. The instrumentation of this MM band just makes all the music sound a bit more like The Faces or The Pogues or something. I like that. We should play “BackStabbers” on Saturday, that would kill. I really miss Philadelphia.

TK: Gus is one of the most exciting and unexpected things about the album. Will he be joining you for XPN Fest? How does he like being in the band?

DB: Oh Gus will be there…no Gus, no gig at this point…not this album cycle anyway, this show is his as much as it’s mine now. He is 10 years old, he has become a great friend to all of us, he can channel music, he has more talent and magic in him than is probably fair to other people…old soul or whatever you wanna call it, just how it shook out I guess. He also told me he really likes Philadelphia, so look out! I think he’ll be out for blood on Saturday…I’m gonna buy him a Phillies hat. He’s a big baseball guy.

TK: Anything else you’d like to add?

DB: Just a big thanks to WXPN for being a great radio station and throwing such a great music festival, very cool line up, we are proud to be a part of it. Hope it doesn’t rain.

Marah plays the Marina Stage at the XPoNential Music Festival at 2:25 p.m.; more information here.

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