- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

Saturday night in Arlington was bitter and blustery — a night for thick sweaters, hoods and hats — but inside Iota Club & Cafe, it was all summer and good times, thanks to a band you probably have never heard of that plays every song like an encore and boasts Bruce Springsteen as one of its biggest fans.

The mysterious band is Marah (pronounced ma-RAH), a quintet that owes its curious name to biblical Hebrew (it roughly translates as “bitter”) and its inspiration to the gritty streets of Philadelphia. Although the group’s commercial success has been minimal, coast-to-coast critical acclaim for the band has been astounding.

It’s mind-boggling that here-today-gone-tomorrow bands with half as much talent have gone platinum, yet Marah’s crackers-for-dinner, starving-musician tale is still waiting for its happy ending.

Radio success or not, the sold-out Iota crowd clearly knew what was up when the show was announced, and folks were being turned away at the door early in the evening. The lucky fans who arrived in time got everything they wanted and more: nearly two hours of sweaty, honest, heartfelt rock ‘n’ roll.

After a sensational and surprising bagpipe introduction, the band — headed by Philly-raised frontmen Dave Bielanko and older brother Serge — swaggered onstage and proceeded to tear the place down, fogging up every Iota window in the process. Their hearty set list spanned Marah’s 10-year career and included first-rate, beer-soaked covers of “In the City” by 1970s British punkers the Jam and Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” as a closing song.

With a voice reminiscent of a young Springsteen or Ryan Adams, younger brother Dave — dressed in a black leather jacket, Knicks T-shirt and knit cap — was his legendary wild self. He delighted the jam-packed crowd with masterful standing-on-the-bar guitar stylings that would have Mike Myers’ and Dana Carvey’s Wayne and Garth on their knees.

Between songs, Serge entertained Marah devotees with touring stories, including the band’s somewhat recent discovery of Panera Bread cafes and the joys of giving celebrity names to go along with a salad order. (The other day the singer-guitarist was Conor Oberst of one-man indie sensation Bright Eyes. “Tomorrow,” he mused, “tomorrow I’ll be Julian Casablancas” of the Strokes.)

As high-profile fan and author Nick Hornby wrote in a 2004 New York Times Op-Ed column devoted to the band, in Marah he hears “everything I ever loved about rock music,” and chances are that everyone in the Iota audience felt the same way.

Whether Marah ever finds commercial success is up in the air, but for now, the band is still a much-loved secret that any red-blooded, rock-loving American can raise a beer to on a Saturday night.

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