We live in an age when too many of our musical heroes are mere talent contest winners. American Idol, America’s Got Talent . . . and often the winners of these contests are voted in by the idiots who watch these shows. And face it folks, as talented as some of the winners are, it is a safe bet that every town in America has several people that are at least, if not more, talented. People who are paying their dues, writing and singing about life, love, and love lost.
It’s enough to make one despair about the state of music in America. Thankfully, there have been torch bearers through it all—people and bands who write honest music and take it on the road. They’re hard to find on the radio, generally being relegated to the left hand side of the FM dial, but they are out there.
Marah is such a band.
These folks have been around for a while, gone through line-up changes, gone from New York to the wilds of Eastern PA. But, mark my words, friends, these folks are the real deal. Marah has been working on a very intriguing project called, Mountain Minstrelsy. At some point, the band ran across a book of folk music from around the globe. Words about the toils and joys of life. They set out to preserve the music, to make it speak for themselves and for us. The results have been wonderful. Delightful. It is music that speaks for us all, speaks for us in ways that we cannot, perhaps, speak for ourselves. Most of us have probably not heard of Marah, but Mountain Minstrelsy is a very important piece of work.
I had the chance to speak, via email, with Marah’s Dave Beilanko, and this is how the conversation turned out:
MHS: On Mountain Minstrelsy, I see/hear a total lack of pretension in this project. I mean, hell, you've got a child playing fiddle and clogging (quite well I must say), There is so much going on at any given time, yet it all comes together. Is it really as spontaneous as it sounds?
DB: The individual recordings of the songs are live performances so in that sense yes, it is quite spontaneous...the process is kinda like photography in a way, knowing when to take the picture (when to push "record") the players should know the song but not completely own it, the sound of "just barely getting away with it." (BTW That's our fiddle player Gus's younger brother Huck. Huck is an amazing clogger. He plays incredible washboard too and can also light saber you in half.) We are only trying to get "takes" of the songs that have a bit of tension and joy and mystery…things you don't hear on albums too much anymore, I wonder if people will even recognize em ?
MHS: Regarding local, regional bands, people insist on comparisons, i.e., "these guys remind me of (any famous national act)." Yet, Marah seems to transcend that. I can't really think of any comparisons sound-wise, but in spirit, it makes me think of early stuff by The Band, or Neil Young's Ditch Trilogy. Guitar's not quite in tune, fuck it, it was a great take. I'm also led to think of the old days when everybody would stand around one mic. The lead player would just step closer. Do you get comparisons, and if so, who?
DB: Hmmm, it's kinda like having some guy come up to you in a bar going "you know who you look like?" I like the people you mention here but I don't think it's even possible for us to try and emulate them at this point? I like Kiss and Frank Sinatra and Reverend Gary Davis?? I like the old Russian folk song "Dark Eyes" I have no idea what I'm supposed to sound like. Spirit is about the size of it I guess. Fuck 'em.
MHS: You have gone on record as being rather disappointed in digital recording. (Just go to town and soapbox on this one.)
DB: First of all, I stand on no soapbox for anything...i happen to own a tape machine cause I been in a band since I was like 12years old…my friend Gary happens to own a big ass church. So…if you record on a tape machine (without a computer in the room) in 2012 you are one of two things . . . 1) rich or 2) nuts
I am sadly not rich, (in fact I’m terrible at making money) so that makes me nuts. We have no back-up copies of this music. If the machine breaks down we all lose. It is a huge gamble, it is totally self righteous, potentially career destroying and completely unfair to the players considering all of the time that we are asking them to commit...but the other side is this....it sounds fantastic and alive and in tune with the universe, it sounds " real" because it is real....so I explained all this to everyone and we agreed, let's have a go...(also you must keep in mind everyone on this record lives in the country, there is definitely a different set of priorities at work here. There are no expectations, it's kinda badass.)
I can also say this; Rocky 1 is a better movie than Avatar, and that is not a matter of taste or opinion. It’s better.
Final word on this subject is this…when expensive tape is rolling on 40 year old Swiss tape machine there is massive tension in the room, it does something to the people in the room, it is not casual. It promotes a performance. Where just maybe hitting the space bar over and over again quantizing a plastic egg in some guys apartment doesn't?? But then again, what do I know? The world is going where it's going. I certainly don't have a lot of the answers.
MHS: What can we expect from a live show?
DB: No idea, it could sound really good.
Marah will be playing a three piece, acoustic show on July 14th at The Kollar Club at 3226 Jane St. in the southside.
(Photo by Tim Yarrington)