wound up strummin’ on my old guitar
Now my life’s happiness has expired.
It’s easy to forget just how hilly and winding this country’s interstates can be when you’re not flooring it over them in an attempt to make a gig before the band you very recently had, as my dear friend, Katrina put it, “auditory orgasms” for, takes the stage. There are mountains in central Tennessee, as was made abundantly clear to me last night on my three-hour drive south to Atlanta, Georgia.
I was chasing time-zones from the get go, having left work just later than I would have liked, and barely crossing into Eastern Time as the doors to Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta were opening. I wasn’t too worried, considering how late Marah took the stage on Saturday night, but it had already been a long day and I just wanted to get there. (I had an awesome soundtrack to carry me, though, as Jay from Saturday had managed to YouSendIt three albums of “Mararities” to me during the day.)
I haven’t been back to Atlanta since the ’96 Olympics, but I feel a sort of kinship with that city. Maybe it’s because I grew up on I-75 and it felt like part of me was coming home when I hit Chattanooga and left 24-East behind. Maybe it’s that it’s always given off my kind of vibe. I don’t know, but if there’s anything I regret about making a three-hour trip to see a three-hour gig and then turning around to make a three-hour trip back home on a Tuesday night, it’s that I didn’t get to hang around and see it with grown-up eyes.
I pulled into the parking lot of Smith’s (impressive–an actual parking lot at an urban bar, with free parking no less!) around 9:30, dashed to an ATM, and spent a paranoid five or so minutes standing in the entrance way thinking oh my god, I’ve come on the wrong night, I’ve gotten the wrong place, oh my god, oh my god until I read the sign just next to me that said “Music Room Upstairs”.
After an on-going debate with myself, I had decided to wear the cheeky shirt Libby had brought back from the Inauguration for me. Running up the stairs, still afraid that I’d come on the wrong night or had the wrong place, I couldn’t understand why the bouncer was looking at me strangely, until he gave me a nod and said, “Nice shirt. ID?” I handed him my license and just to double-check asked, “Marah is here tonight, right?”
But I needn’t have had such fear, because Johnny Pisano was here! Standing just inside the door, looking nervous, self-conscious, and like a guy who still, after a million years as a professional musician, is genuinely happy to be where he is.
Where he was last night was the mostly empty thrid-floor of a pool and poker bar where Emory University students from down the street were too busy downstairs to be bothered paying the $15 gig fee.
Marah’s fanbase, I think, must be a very homogeneous group, and I wonder if I’m being too kind on myself not to lump me in with them. Again, I was one of the only girls, and I was for sure the only under-thirty not drinking PBR tall boys. (I wasn’t drinking anything but Red Bull, for which the bartender asked me repeatedly if I was sure I wanted that much caffeine in my system on a Tuesday night. For a three-hour drive at one in the morning, I was sure.)
The crowd was thin, thinner by far than on Saturday. I kept wondering if maybe I was earlier than I expected and that the opener hadn’t even played yet, but the lights went down and the engineer started playing this ridiculous spoken-word track on repeat that made everyone standing around me cast looks at each other that said, What. The. Hell? It turns out that my timing was perfect, and I stood around for just a couple minutes before the sheer curtains were pulled back and Johnny, Dave, Martin, and Christine hopped up on stage.
All of them were wearing the exact same outfits, down to the accessories, as they were on Saturday. With the exception of Johnny, whose vest and velvet blazer actually looked ironed and clean, they looked like what my dad claimed, a “bunch of maggot-infested, dope-smoking, FM types.” (I’m still trying to work out what exactly an FM type is. Dad, care to elaborate?) I did have a little chuckle, given Lis’s reaction of but Whitney, he’s so DIRTY! to my excitement on Saturday.
Barely a, “Hey Atlanta, thanks for having us!” and they were off. In between drags on their Marlboro’s and sips from their Busch Light tall boys, they opened the show with “Faraway You” and Christine’s only stint on the accordian the entire set. Their energy was up, given their two-day break between Nashville and Atlanta, but man, they looked tired. Dave’s absurd coveralls were drenched even before the last chord of the opener was played.
One or two single, older women-types danced awkwardly around the amps at the foot of the stage, while the rest of the crowd (all 35 of us) hung back a bit. Dave stomped on his cigarette and said, “Don’t worry, it won’t be long til you’re all standing up front.” And it wasn’t. During the next couple songs, the audience gradually ponied up and lined the front of the stage. It gave me an odd feeling, like the space between musician and fan was almost too close. At The Basement on Saturday, it was intimate in the sense that everyone was elbow-to-elbow and shoulder-to-shoulder and we were packed into the venue, but still within easy reach of the band. In Atlanta, it was like there was too much room between each member of the audience, and that made it easier for Dave to make eye contact with each of us, and that kind of intimacy was almost overwhelming.
Tuesday’s set was absolutely amazing. If I thought they were fantastic on Saturday, I have no adjective to describe their performance last night. They started off with the same songs, but they added banter and repartee and jokes. During one pause, Dave told a story about the Springsteen tribute at Carnegie Hall in 2007 and how a certain song about Philadelphia was supposed to be played by a certain pair of brothers named Bielanko, but was instead “butchered” by a certain pair of brothers named Bacon. He gave the audience strict orders never to repeat the story in its entirety, lest Kevin Bacon google himself and find Dave Bielanko to be talking about him, again.
They played all the good songs again, “Angels on a Passing Train” and “Wild West Love Song” and Dave even introduced “So What If We’re Outta Tune” with the same this is a chick song, guys get out of here while I sing to your ladies joke. He and Christine shared a cigarette and he let the frets of his acoustic hold it while he sang. He asked for requests (“By the way, these are 25 bucks…you know, whenever you get a chance!”) and, even though we were throwing toughies at him, he said, “Fuck it, let’s play ’em all. Who’s up for four and a half hours of Marah?”
The funny thing is, they did play almost all of ’em. I yelled for “Formula” once or twice and someone yelled “East” once or twice and he said, “We haven’t played those in years, but let’s do it.” And I really, really believed him, but when he picked “East” as the first of those requests to play, I kind of knew I was never going to hear my favorite line, “I didn’t know god made honky-tonk angels.” (To be honest, it didn’t bother me much, because “East” is pretty classic.)
But they more than made up for it. “Catfisherman,” already one of the coolest songs in their repertoire, was even more energetic and ass-kicking than Saturday’s version. They dedicated “Wild West” and his murder mystery anthem, “Body” to Serge, and they played “This Town” for Dave’s mom. “Walt Whitman Bridge” gave Johnny and Martin a break from the upright and the drums and saw them on the rattle and tambourine, singing into Johnny’s mic and looking like two over-grown boys having the most fun of their lives.
Dave put a yellow pick between his teeth and said, “Well, I guess this next one is called ‘Round Eye Blues’, but I want to play this other song first.” Johnny and Martin jumped down from the stage and slow-danced with two blondes in a charming and sweetly romantic way while Dave and Christine played something by one of those 1950s smooth talkers I can never remember. “Round Eye Blues” was beautiful and struck me again with a sense of dumbfoundedness. (And the raging desire to read the book it was inspired by, W.D. Ehrhart’s Vietnam-Perkasie.)
Switching out his acoustic for his electric to play the outro of “Round Eye,” Dave’s strap fell off and he mouthed a big fuck it and just played the last minute of the song from the floor of the stage with the guitar in his lap. Possibly the only thing that could have made that performance better was if Christine had actually played it on the accordian instead of the keyboard, because that sound is just so essential to the effect the song has on me. But I really can’t complain.
The guitar strap incident was the first of many electric guitar-related SNAFUs of the night. After that, the amplifier cord kept falling out and Dave would be silenced for several bars at a time. Then, once he got it plugged back in, the amp itself started acting up. He tried to coax it into submission, saying, “Come on, little amp, I know you got it in ya. I know you wanna help me finish out the show.” But the amp had other ideas in mind, I guess, because he was never able to get it to cooperate again. He eventually threw his electric down and said, “I don’t know to get off the stage without my wall of electric sound between me and you guys. I’m nervous now. Maybe we’ll just have to disappear into a wall of smoke and be gone!”
At this point, it was nearing midnight, but they showed no signs of letting up. Someone requested “Demon of White Sadness” and Dave started into it, only to cut Christine off at the first chorus, saying, “See Christine, that’s why you gotta show up at rehearsal! All the choruses of Demon are doubled.” She responded with an eye-roll and a pleading look at us, like “Come on, guys, help me out here.” The in-fighting between the two of them all night caught my attention, and part of me suspects that Christine is just a bit in love with Dave. (Which totally ruins my chances with him.)
There was an interlude while they gave each other death stares, but Dave regained control and started talking about touring and missing Flying Js and Waffle Houses and shit hotels. And then he said, “We played Nashville on Saturday, and man, that was probably the best gig we’ve ever played.” I gave a little yip and Johnny made eye-contact with me and gave me a little wink.
They finished out the night with a handful of songs I never really expected to see them do live. Someone requested “Barstool Boys” and they went for it, which made me insanely happy because it’s only my third-or-so-favorite song of theirs.
Dave picked up his banjo and said, “You can do anything with a banjo on stage. You can make it folksy. This is some folksy, pirate shit.” Whatever that means. But when he started the intro for “Limb” and said, “This is fifteen-year-old, machine-gun-toting, Somali pirate shit” I could’ve cared less what he was talking about because seeing him play the banjo like that was just incredible. They thanked the crowd after an extended banjo solo, and left the stage.
Only to return not even a full minute later for a four-song encore that included Dave dragging his mic stand down into the crowd for an acoustic “Point Breeze”. He jumped back on stage and when someone yelled “Bums on the Street,” they all kind of looked at each other and said, “Yeah,” like, so it was never on the set list but it’s the encore and it’s only 1:00 am, so why the hell not?
Very appropriately, the full band played “The Closer” as their last song of the night, but Dave and Christine stayed on stage for “Tippacanoe”. I was thrilled and spent most of that song laughing, especially since Dave introduced it by saying that, yes, it is a true story, and yes, the Indiana police did arrest him just for being drunk on a couch in a hotel, and I could barely refrain from yelling out that, I agree, “If you wanna stay free west of the Ohio” avoid Indiana!
When the curtain closed and the lights came back up, Johnny was almost instantly out among those of us who stuck around. I was sitting at a table with my notebook out when he showed up next to me and said, “I know you! I know you from somewhere, but I think you’re wearing a different shirt or your hair is different or something!” We talked some and I introduced myself properly and he was genuinely interested in how I thought the show went.
Christine was manning the merch booth, and when I went to tell her what a great show it was, she said, “You’re that girl!” and I thought she was maybe going to yell at me for being on stage on Saturday, but instead she said, “It was so much fun having you and your friend up there with us the other night.” We talked for a minute until Dave came over and she introduced me to him. He looked absolutely exhausted and a little bit like he wished the six or seven people still hanging out would just leave already, but he was friendly enough and laughed when I said, “I’m a really terrible dancer so I’m sorry if it was distracting for us to be on stage with you Saturday.” He and Christine both mumbled something about me hanging out with them if they finish recording the new album at 16 Ton on Music Row, but I won’t hold ’em to it.
I was getting ready to leave, but Johnny grabbed me and wanted to talk, so I spent a few minutes with him and Martin. They both kept saying how hilarious it was on Saturday that Jenny, even though she was almost certainly wasted, was able to play the tambourine completely in time with the band just by jumping up and down and shaking it. “That’s not as easy as it looks,” Martin said. Johnny offered to buy me a shot of Patron. When I explained to both of them that I was driving back to Nashville, they were both extremely concerned, in a very genuine way, and asked if I had been drinking at all and if I wasn’t sure I didn’t want to stay in Atlanta and if I had thought at all that they meant was I sure I didn’t want to stay in Atlanta with them, I would have taken them up on it! They were both really excited that I had driven down and they wanted to know which show I thought was better.
Martin and I talked about Nashville a little, and about DC, because he lived there for a while, too. He’s an East Nashvillian and plays at the Family Wash every Tuesday in March and told me to come. We’re now facebook friends and, provided I show up to any of his March shows, I’m sure we’ll be BFFs IRL, too. At his instistance, I also put in a friend request for Johnny on facebook.
They both shook my hand and thanked me again for coming, and Johnny walked me to the door, asking over and over, “Are you sure you’re going to be okay to drive? Are you sure you’re going to make it? You’re not too tired, are you?” I assured him I’d be fine and he seemed convinced. He gave me a hug and said he hoped to be back in Nashville soon.
I pulled in to my apartment just after 3:00 am, exhausted, with a little bit of a migraine, and really sad that my whirlwind Marah tour was over. But even though I cruised in to work on four hours of sleep and needed to be refueled every couple hours with crappy coffee, seeing my favorite band live twice in one week was was most. definitely. worth. it.
Filed under: music | 4 Comments
Tags: Atlanta, Dave Bielanko, gigs, Marah, Smith's Olde Bar