Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir
Rachel Devine climbs up hill and down dale in search of four musical mavericks with a taste for the hillbilly, the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir
They may be only four in number but there are times when the collective voices of the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir soar as strong and pure as a 100-strong ensemble.
While they make us guess at the tendency of their religious beliefs there is no doubting the pedigree of the Calgary quartet who can turn their hands to pre-war blues, bluegrass and Appalachian folk, and blend it into a raucous roar of country punk, as well as any native musician of the southern US states. They release their third album, Ten Thousand this month and, having been championed here by Mark Lamarr and roots legend Seasick Steve, they are basking in the first wave of interest outside their native Canada.
‘It’s kind of unbelievable in a way,’ says singer Bob Bob Keelaghan. ‘We’ve all played in bands before and we’ve never had this kind of success. In some ways it doesn’t seem real but it’s still cool.’
Geography has never been deterrent to Canadian bands drawn to delta blues and American mountain music. But just as American folk music traces its roots back to the Celtic countries – the Irish emigrants did their bit for bluegrass, the Scottish settlers veered towards Appalachian music – Canada has always played its part in the development and continuation of north American folk and country music traditions from The Band to Shania Twain (okay, maybe not Shania Twain).
‘Especially on the blues side of things we get asked “why does a band from Calgary play music like this?”’ says Keelaghan.
‘There’s a geographical advantage because we live next door but the cultural traditions are similar. Folk music is folk music and we’re in an age when geography is not as important as it used to be. You don’t have to go to the southern US states to play it.’
It helps, of course, that the Agnostics style of lonesome roots music is back in fashion, its purveyors no longer regarded as bibulous old fools resistant to changing trends in music.
‘In the UK people seem to know about the music – there’s a great scene, and that makes you feel quite at home,’ says Keelaghan. ‘When you look at the stuff we’re drawn from, Appalachian, country and blues, a lot of that comes from Ireland and Scotland, a lot of fiddle tunes and even subject matter. I think then when we bring that music back over it strikes a chord. ‘I think the Irish and Scottish people are fiercely protective of their music and their traditions but proud of where the music has gone since.’
The Agnostics’ songs are rough and raw but expertly delivered in a swathe of banjo, harmonica, guitar and upright bass and their original material is as authentic as the pre-war covers by the likes of Sleepy John Estes and Son House they throw in. It’s hard to know where the 1920s begin and 2008 ends.
‘Country music or blues at its best is a very direct and honest form of music, the same ideals as a really good rock band.’
The Agnostics have blues, rock and belief to spare.
Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, King Tut’s, Glasgow, Thu 8 Aug; Tartan Heart Festival, Belladrum, Fri 9 Aug.