Once upon a time in South Philadelphia, Passyunk Avenue had more gravy joints than foodie eateries. There was no hot social-media controversy about colonizing gentrifiers taking selfies while nibbling French food on the rooftop of a shuttered school building.
That's because, back around the time when the ramshackle Philadelphia roots-rock band Marah released its album Kids in Philly in 2000, the millennial invasion that has generated so many listicles ("21 Ways Philadelphia is the Coolest City in America," quoth the Huffington Post) and made possible events like the entrepreneurial Forbes Under 30 Summit, which kicks off its second year in town starting today, was part of an unimaginable Philadelphia future.
Back then, Boot & Saddle was a recently shuttered country and Western shot-and-beer joint, not a spiffy indie-rock craft beer taproom. The Bok Technical High School building at Ninth and Mifflin Streets was still educating public school students during the day, not acting as a gentrification lightning rod with its pop-up Le Bok Fin bistro.
The South Philly that brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko wrote about in 2000 in Kids in Philly - and its equally winning 1998 predecessor, the charmingly titled Let's Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight - was an ethnically diverse working-class neighborhood in a pre-hipster-invasion state. Nearly everyone you ever met in Philadelphia was either from Philadelphia or at least close enough that they had grown up watching Jim Gardner on Action News.
The Bielanko brothers themselves fit into the latter category. They were blue-collar kids from Conshohocken educated on doo-wop, rhythm and blues, street-corner soul, country music, and rock and roll. With a supply of rambling, shambling heart-on-their-sleeves songs, they settled in with producer Paul Smith to record Let's Cut the Crap and Kids in Philly in their home studio clubhouse above Frank's Auto Body on Bancroft Street in the then-unhip neighborhood they sang about in Kids in a tune titled "Point Breeze."
After years apart (more on that later), the Bielankos will reunite for a show Oct. 10 at the Elk Creek Cafe in Millheim, Pa., and a sold-out show at Underground Arts in Philadelphia on Oct. 17 in celebration of Tuesday's first-time-ever release of Kids in Philly on vinyl.
The gatefold vinyl release comes with a CD with bonus tracks, three of which were recorded at the Theatre of Living Arts on South Street in 2000. That night, to celebrate Kids in Philly's release on Steve Earle's E-Squared label, the band was introduced by David Dye, host of World Cafe on WXPN, who spoke on behalf of the assembled in thanking the band "for restoring our faith in rock and roll."
Marah stirred that kind of passion. Part of it was their scrappy sincerity, the obvious belief in rock and roll redemption - or at least hard-earned wisdom - that came across in sometimes inspired, sometimes sloppy-drunk live shows. "Learn to love the highway when you're traveling," Dave Bielanko sang on the country-blues "Baby Love" on Let's Cut the Crap. "Learn to love your hometown when you're home."
Part of it was that Marah repped Philly so hard. As complete unknowns, they persuaded Phillies announcer Harry Kalas to record a vocal on the winsome "Rain Delay." Their increased ambitions on the bigger, fuller-sounding Kids in Philly, delivered with a touch of the word-slinging swagger that marked early Bruce Springsteen albums like The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, were signaled by an intro by Philadelphia AM radio legend Hy Lit. He sent the music out "from the kids in Philly to the kids all over the world."
Last week, as I was walking around the office with the Kids in Philly LP, which features a picture of then-bass player Danny Metz as a child Mummer on its cover, my Marah fan colleague Chip Fox described the 11-song set as "the most Philadelphia album ever made." Indeed, it would be hard to find a collection that feels more like a local-local-local urban travelogue. It includes not only "Point Breeze" (where "there ain't no trees"), but also the rugged "The Catfisherman," about a fisherman equipped with "a joint, three Millers, and 12 chicken livers," casting his line into the river from the derelict shoreline that is now cleaned-up Schuylkill Banks Park.
There's also "Christian Street," an ode to the South Philly artery. It opens this way: "Saint Paul's is for soul salvage, Ninth Street for my fennel and leek / $10 is my lottery ticket / and I get my haircut from the Vietnamese." Most majestic is the bopping heartbreak of "My Heart Is the Bums on the Street": "My heart is the schoolyard so empty, vacant of smiles and void of all joy . . . My heart is this wondrous city, with its love and its life and its one . . . slammin' door."
So what happened to Marah? It's a long story. Kids in Philly sent them on their way. The Bielankos guested with Springsteen on stage at Giants Stadium, and the Boss helped out on vocals on Float Away With the Friday Night Gods. That 2002 album, recorded with Oasis producer Owen Morris, was supposed turn Marah into rock stars but didn't.
Marah moved to Brooklyn - alienating Philly fans, who took it personally - and kept making records with occasional great songs. "Walt Whitman Bridge," from 2005's If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry, is one. Famous fans like Nick Hornby and Stephen King boosted them in print.
But the wide-open wonder of the early albums faded, and the band came apart like most bands do, though they have never ceased officially to be Marah. Serge left to focus on raising a family after Angels of Destruction in 2008. Dave and new songwriting partner Christine Smith relocated to Centre County and carried on with Life Is a Problem in 2010 and the intriguing Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania last year.
The big news in Marah world now, along with the Kids in Philly reissue, is that Serge is back in the fold, living close by his bro in the State College area. Last month, Dave Bielanko told Springsteen site Backstreets, "We whisper about a new record with Serge and this lineup late at night. . . . Nothing in my opinion would be better than a new Marah record, provided it was a great new Marah record."
Those hopeful that the brothers Bielanko can work together again - the way squabbling sibs like Dave and Phil Alvin have made amends, and Kinks bros Dave and Ray Davies have never been able to - key in on sergebielanko.com, where the guitarist-songwriter maintains a superbly written blog called Thunder Pie.
In July, in a post titled "Coffee Table Iron Man," inspired in part by his son Henry, Serge asked himself whether he was ready to commit to playing rock and roll again with all his heart and soul.
His answer to himself gave fans hope that they are going to be able to see a once-great Philadelphia band back in action: "The past is the past," he wrote. "I'm doing this for me. I need to say that and understand that it's all right. I'm playing rock/roll for me. I need it. Give it to me."