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BACK AT FULL STRENGTH

Marah/The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, N.J./Dec. 11, 2015

Marah_Christine Smith, Dave Bielanko, Serge Bielanko, Adam Garbinski, Dave Petersen, and Mark Sosnoskie_photo by Marko Korkeakoski

For fans of Marah, it was welcome news when the band announced a reunion of sorts this fall to celebrate the vinyl release of its revered 2000 album, Kids in Philly. But the best news of all might be that, during the Philadelphia-spawned group’s recent performance at an old Jersey Shore stomping ground, the album itself became a bit of an afterthought.

Instead, the 25-song, two-set performance, which surprisingly included only five of Kids in Philly’s 11 tracks, was so fluid and feverish that it ensured Marah could not be mistaken for a past-its-prime nostalgia act. The occasion may have been a golden opportunity for the band to mine its past, but the seven-piece lineup — which swelled to eight or nine at times, with a few friends popping up to add fiddle, bagpipes, tin whistle and percussion — attacked the material with such vigor that it was hard not to instead think about what might lay ahead in the immediate future. (The band plans to record new material in 2016 and has designs on touring abroad.)

“Slowly, we’re rebuilding our band,” singer-guitarist Dave Bielanko said from the stage. “And I do believe that’s the best rock ’n’ roll band in America.”

No, remaining cocksure has never been a problem for Marah, at least not publicly. Instead, the obstacles have included: an ever-changing lineup surrounding Bielanko and his brother, fellow singer-guitarist Serge; a less-than-warmly received, souped-up third album that seemed to stall the momentum generated by Kids in Philly at the turn of the millennium; and, in a major blow, internal tensions that resulted in the band essentially imploding in early 2008 just prior to a European tour, soon before Serge Bielanko left to start a family.

Dave Bielanko and multi-instrumentalist Christine Smith relocated from Brooklyn to Pennsylvania and kept Marah afloat with other musicians, albeit with a much lower profile, sometimes performing as a duo. This Asbury Park date found the Bielankos and Smith joining forces again with guitarist Adam Garbinski and drummer Dave Petersen — a twosome who lent considerable heft to the proceedings — plus on-again, off-again sideman Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner on pedal-steel guitar and relative newcomer Mark Sosnoskie on bass.

In take-no-prisoners mode

With Marah back at full strength, and with the volume and verve dialed all the way up, the feel-good vibes emanating from the stage were undeniable, right from the start. Indeed, the burst of three electric guitars that ushered in show opener “Freedom Park” seemed downright cathartic, and when the band followed that rousing number with a ramshackle run through Kids in Philly favorite “Point Breeze,” it was clear not only that Marah was in take-no-prisoners mode, but that its sweat-and-swagger approach was as effective as ever.

There were impressive moments at lesser tempos, to be sure; the four-piece configuration of the Bielankos, Smith (on the keyboard) and Brenner served both “Why Independent Record Stores Fail,” a cleverly worded tale of unrequited love, and “Body,” a dark, sprawling narrative about a murder, quite well. But Marah left its most indelible impressions when all of its musical appendages were at work, as displayed on “Family Meeting,” a blast of pure punk angst; “The Demon of White Sadness,” featuring an airtight groove that recalled The Rolling Stones of the ’70s; and on “My Heart Is the Bums on the Street,” which rolls doo-wop, soul and street-poet cool into what Dave Bielanko introduced as a “dance party.”

The entire event felt like a party, really — and not just because a lively Philly contingent made the trip north. When Dave Bielanko — who was all pent-up energy, and just as amped-up between songs as he was during them — wasn’t exhorting his bandmates or the audience with a cry of “motherf—–(s)” (which must have happened two dozen times), he was imploring the crowd to cheer, or simply remarking about how happy he was to be back onstage with his “family.”

The enthusiasm was so widespread that Marah arguably got carried away at times, extending a good many songs with breakdowns, interludes or even complete stops, before building back up to yet another huge refrain. On one such number, a funk-tinged rendition of “Wilderness” — which saw a few band members eventually leave the stage one by one, seemingly setting up an encore break that never quite happened — it appeared as if they weren’t quite sure how to wrap things up.

Ultimately, that proved forgivable on a night that was not about endings at all, but the potential of a new beginning.

— By George Henn

Marah, from left to right: Christine Smith, Dave Bielanko, Serge Bielanko, Adam Garbinski, Dave Petersen and Mark Sosnoskie. Photo by Marko Korkeakoski

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