XPNFest Recap: Marah showed off some serious skills on the Marina Stage

Marah | photo by Michelle Montgomery |
Marah | photo by Michelle Montgomery |

Where do you even start with a band like Marah.  The re-invented band’s set had a few XPoNential firsts, to begin with.  First bagpipe on stage (probably), youngest band-member (young fiddle prodigy Gus Tritsch) and the first time I saw a line of fans line up at the back of the stage to autographs.  From the name of their most recent record, Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, you might expect a quaint back porch folk group but that is no where near what we got this afternoon on the Marina Stage.

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XPoNential Artist Spotlight: Keeping mountain minstrelsy alive with Marah

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. Continue reading →


Download The Key Studio Sessions Volume 10 (feat. Modern Baseball, Elegant Animals, Marah and more)

TheKeyStudioSessionsVol10Summing up an entire region’s music scene in an hour-ish long compilation is pretty much impossible. But dangit, we try our best. I’m very psyched for the roster of artists we’ve lined up on The Key Studio Sessions Volume 10, out today as a free download you can grab below. Pop-punk wave makers Modern Baseball did a version of “The Weekend” from their 2012 debut LP Sports, and the mini XPN shoutout they deliver at the end of the first chorus might be my favorite moment of the set. The song as a whole is insanely fun and on point, and MoBo’s basement-scene brethren W.C. Lindsay (more synthpop leaning) and The Hundred Acre Woods (more folk-leaning) also make solid appearances. There are several acts on the comp who you’ll see this summer at the XPoNential Music Festival: Ginger Coyle, Commonwealth Choir, Marah and Marian Hill. I love using our studio to allow more experimental-leaning artists to blaze new paths, whether its Trophy Wife‘s expansive rager “Neil Young” (very reminiscent of the Dead Man score for sure), Tutlie‘s elegant dreamscape “Kaito” or Bleeding Rainbow‘s noise-punk jam “Time or Place.” Suave downbeat crooners Elegant Animals knock a track from their back catalogue out of the park, and though the comp is admittedly short on hip-hop, eclectic electronica soundscaper Ganou spits a fierce verse on “Detainment.” (We’ll have a lot more Philly hip-hop on volume 11 in August, don’t worry.) A summation of an entire scene? Of course not. I think of this more of an incomplete but nonetheless awesome snapshot of Philadelphia-area music circa spring 2014, one we’ll continue building on. Major thanks go to production assistants Dan Hatton and Dan Malloy; photographers Rachel Del Sordo, Megan Kelly, Allison Newbold, Dominique Montgomery and Ian Lewis; videographers Bob Sweeney, James PowersRyan Chowansky and Bands in the Backyard; and guest engineers Mattias Nilsson and Adam Staniszewski. Listen to the comp and download it for free below.


Alt-country rockers Marah, playing #XPNfest, share video for “A Melody of Rain”

Alt-country rockers Marah are one of the 30+ bands playing WXPN’s XPoNential Music Festival this summer at Wiggins Park/Susquehanna Bank Center July 25-27th. The band recently released Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania. The album was inspired by a 1931 book by Henry Shoemaker, “Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania.” Marah’s Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith wrote music for the early 20th Century and Civil War-era lyrics and recorded the album in an old farmhouse in Central Pennsylvania, where they relocated after leaving Philadelphia. The album is a impassioned collection of country & folk & gospel flavored rock-and-roll, recorded with a handful of local musicians including 9 year old fiddle prodigy and singer, Gus Tritsch. Gus steals much of the show on this new video for “A Melody of Rain,” a motley, yet swinging roots rave-up. Tickets for the XPoNential Music Festival are available here.


Rodrigo y Gabriela, Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Hold Steady and more top the XPoNential Music Festival lineup

Rodrigo y Gabriela | photo via
Rodrigo y Gabriela | photo via

Dueling acoustic duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, eclectic New Orleans folk-blues combo Hurray for the Riff Raff, and stalwart rock n’ rollers The Hold Steady are just some of the 25 artists announced today in the full lineup of this year’s edition of the XPoNential Music Festival.

These acts will play the two stages in Wiggins Park from July 25th to July 27th of this year, alongside the festival’s headlining concerts at Susquehanna Bank Center featuring Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis and Dawes (July 26th) and Beck, Band of Horses and The Districts (July 27th).

Hurray for the Riff Raff | Photo by Kate McCann |
Photo by Kate McCann |

The Wiggins Park bill is filled with WXPN favorites, like alt-country heroes Old 97s, Jersey singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins and Diego Garcia, all of whom are return-XPNFest-ers.

There is also an assortment of up-and-coming names like countrified Nashville singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose (featured on World Cafe’s Sense of Place: Nashville series); Bear’s Den, a UK rock trio with a flair for drama (they made a splash at the March Edition of the Communion Club Night at Underground Arts), the jazzy / folky vocal combo Lake Street Dive and the art-pop powerhouse Lucius, (who knocked our socks off at Free at Noon late last year.)

Man Man | Photo by Rachel Barrish |
Man Man | Photo by Rachel Barrish |

The greater Philadelphia scene is nicely represented as well. Bigger names like avant-garde rockers Man Man (who leaked their appearance last week), punk rock troubadour Dave Hause and reinvented folklorists Marah will mix with emerging artists Commonwealth Choir, Our Griffins, Marian Hill, The Lawsuits, Ginger Coyle and Viv and the Revival.

And adding an even more eclectic scope to the lineup is a taste of zydeco from C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band and some Mississippi blues care of harmonica master James Cotton.

Three days passes for new and renewing WXPN members are available now here. Tickets for the general public go on sale on May 1st; as with previous years, three-day passes will include lawn admission to the Susquehanna Bank Center shows (seated tickets to those are on sale separately, here and here).

Below, listen to a Spotify playlist of the Wiggins Park lineup, and read the complete list of artists after the jump.

Wiggins Park
Rodrigo y Gabriela
Trigger Hippy (featuring Joan Osborne, Jackie Greene & Steve Gorman)
Lake Street Dive
Old 97’s
The Hold Steady
Hurray for the Riff Raff
C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band
Man Man
Nicole Atkins
Diego Garcia
James Cotton
J. Roddy Walston & The Business
Dave Hause
Jeremy Messersmith
Caitlin Rose
Bear’s Den
The Lawsuits
Marian Hill
Ginger Coyle
Our Griffins
Viv and the Revival
Commonwealth Choir

Susquehanna Bank Center
Ryan Adams
Jenny Lewis
Band of Horses
The Districts


The Week’s Best Free MP3s, incl. Marah, Auctioneer, Katie Frank & the Pheromones and more

Photo by Will Hoover
Photo by Will Hoover

This week on Unlocked, The Key got the full scoop on Counting Your Curses by Katie Frank & The Pheromones.  It’s the debut full-length from the local roots rock outfit, and you can download a track from it called “Halfway Gone” below before checking out the full feature here.

Joe Kille is the subject of this week’s Folkadelphia Session.  The fiddler for Morning River Band struck out on his own with a new record Arkadelphia, described by Fred Knittel as “a smart set of timeless sounding country-noir songs.”  Check out some live-recorded tracks from the LP for yourself below.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Marah

Photo by Adam Staniszewski |
Photo by Adam Staniszewski |

“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 presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania at Yards Brewing Co on 2/16

Photo via
Photo via

Following the December update of a new album from nineties roots rock outfit Marah, the band has announced that they will perform Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania at Yards Brewing Co on February 16th.  Presented by Philadelphia Folksong Society, the event will allow Marah to perform the new album with a full band ahead of its February 25th release.

Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania was inspired by a book of the same name that held “a collection of songs lyrics gathered in the mountains of Pennsylvania by Henry Shoemaker, a folklorist and “song catcher.”  Marah’s David Bielanko and Christine Smith reworked the music and lyrics and recorded the album in Millheim, PA.  Tickets and information for the night of “long lost Pennsylvania folk songs, waltzes, rafting chants and mountain ballads” will be available here.


Marah return with a new album, Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania on February 25th

Photo via
Photo via

In early October, we asked the question: Whatever Happened To Marah?. The short answer was that brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko, who took Philly by roots-rock storm in the late Nineties, began to break apart in the mid-aughts. While the brothers parted musical ways, Dave continues to evolve Marah with Christine Smith, and on February 25th release Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania.

The album is based on an obscure book, Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, a collection of song lyrics gathered in the mountains of Pennsylvania by folklorist Henry Shoemaker and published in 1931. After getting a copy of the book, Dave and Christine began to work on a new album, writing original music and using the lyrics in Shoemaker’s book. Working in their studio in an old church in Millheim, Pennsylvania, the record was made on a Studer 8 track tape machine and mastered directly to a vinyl lathe. They also collaborated with an 8-year-old fiddle prodigy named Gus Tritsch, who plays on the album.

Marah’s new album captures the rock and roll intensity and energy of their previous rock and roll records but this time they do it with folk songs, waltzes, chants and ballads. It’s rural rock and roll in all of Marah’s rootsy glory. Below, watch a video of the making of the album.


Update: “Whatever happened to Marah?”

marah Inspired by a tweet from the excellent music blogger Captains Dead stating “gimme #marah,” we took pause for a moment and stopped down to ask: “whatever happened to Marah?”

The Philly roots-rock band that captured our attention in 1998 with a mind blowing debut album (Let’s Cut the Crap & Hook Up Later On Tonight) and the equally impressive Kids In Philly followup, are still rocking it up. Marah began as the brainchild of Conshohocken brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko. Their live performances were fiery and fierce, but with the release of their third album, 2002′s Float Away With the Friday Night Gods, Marah began to show some creative wear and tear on their albums – even though it had a guest appearance from Bruce Springsteen on the album and a record deal on Steve Earle’s E-Squared label.

Though 2005′s If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry was an overall strong collection (and their run of holiday homecoming shows at The TLA in the mid-aughts were somewhat legendary), the band of brothers was beginning to break apart. In 2008, Serge left the band to focus on his family life and he and his wife Monica are raising their family in rural Pennsylvania and do some excellent blogging here and here. In 2010, a house fire destroyed almost everything they had, but thanks to the help of many they pulled through.

Serge’s brother Dave has been keeping the Marah name alive and in 2010 released the raw, yet beautiful Life Is A Problem. Where Marah was once at the center of the conversation of many Philly music fans for several years, that band slipped off the radar. With Serge leaving the band, Dave moved out of Philly and together with Christine Smith, they are carrying on the Marah sound. The band’s forthcoming album is called Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania, and it is going to be a collection of rootsy, spiritual rock and roll. The band writes on their web site that it features “old standards,” and “real banjo punk rock.” In anticipation of the release, Marah have a special limited edition 7-inch vinyl single featuring two new songs. You can order the single here. Below, listen to the A-side, “Ten Cents At The Gate” featuring the Shurfine Barbershop Quartet.