They loved the blues, but hated its popular, generic practitioners. It was the motivating factor for the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir. That, and Judd Palmer’s and drummer Pete Balkwill’s acceptance of an opening slot for Canadian bluesman Lester Quitzau despite not having a band. You see, Palmer played slide guitar in Calgary country-folk band Great Uncle Bull. They would have made a good opener, but they broke up. He talked bassist and fellow Bullsman Vladimir Sobolewski into doing the gig. Sobolewski, in turn, called hotshot guitarist Bob Keelaghan from punk-blues-unsane-abilly combo The Puritans, knowing he shared Palmer’s love for early blues and country. Keelaghan wasn’t busy because The Puritans just broke up, too. Sobolewski knew this because he also played in The Puritans. In one week with three rehearsals, they put together a set and played the gig in January of 2001. Then people kept asking them to play.
The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir’s raucous, firebrand interpretations of pre-WW II acoustic blues and country struck a chord with Calgarian audiences. The roots crowd liked them for their reverence for the musical sources minus the obvious cliches of many modern interpreters. But rock audiences ate up their sets, too. The Agnostics managed to translate and amplify the energy of early Skip James and Son House, transcending the lo-fidelity of a scratchy 78, and reminding young listeners why this music mutated into rock’n’roll.
Balkwill left the band in the first year of its existence and was replaced by Jason Woolley. In 2003 that line-up recorded the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir debut, St. Hubert, in a friend’s house in Canmore. It was cut, mostly, live off the floor. The ingredients were fierce and striking: Palmer’s gutteral vocals, vicious, downtuned, slide guitar, and ragged-but-right banjo; Keelaghan’s equally gravelly vocals, frenetic finger-picking, and cutting lead guitar; Sobolewski’s pounding upright bass; and Woolley’s clanging drum and scrap metal kit. The band was taken by surprise when the disc started getting airplay across Canada on campus radio stations and the first pressing sold out. Gig offers started coming in from festivals across Canada. The Agnostics were no longer Calgary’s secret.
Fighting and Onions emerged in 2005. Again, the band opted for the back-to-the basics approach to recording. If playing live off the floor was good enough for the artists who influenced them, the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir figured they had a standard to match. In an era of studio trickery, they laid out their musical skills bare by recording in their rehearsal space, a secluded wood shop by the railroad tracks in Calgary’s Inglewood district. Unfortunately, as the AMGC and engineer Tyler Scollon started to work, a famously brutal western Canadian cold snap rolled in. The loud, overhead, heating fan had to be turned off for each take. Space heaters blew the circuit breakers. The band struggled through -20 Celcius while laying down the beds. Despite the duress, it added to the recording’s austere edge.
There were original tunes like the anguished anthem ‘Oh Sorrow’ and the thundering, mountain music punk of ‘Buried Them In Water’. There were unique covers like the almost-harcore rendition of Son House’s ‘Preachin Blues’ and a tenderly tortured take of the traditional ‘Look Up Look Down That Lonesome Road’. The disc cracked the top ten of Canada’s National Campus Radio Association’s chart and garnered critical acclaim. The Agnostics were praised for making blues and traditional music exciting, dangerous, and sexy again. Invitations to record for the CBC and tour Canada followed in the wake of the band’s intense live shows.
Frequent comparisons to Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart were a blessing and a curse. The band, while admittedly fans, knew those guys got their influences from the same places; namely the Howlin’ Wolf/Charlie Patton lineage. But they were a couple of white guys who shaped the blues in their own unique fashion, hence they were inevitable inspirations.
Word spread across the Atlantic. BBC radio airplay and an invitation to play the Open House Festival in Belfast led to the AMGC’s first shows outside of Canada. Belfast was the place where they struck up a comradeship with a then little-known Seasick Steve. The response at the festival was tremendous. Seasick Steve’s growing popularity and a bit of kind name dropping on his part laid the groundwork for a cult following in another part of the world.
Come 2008, Jay Woolley departs the band. Balkwill rejoins. They record and release Ten Thousand. Once again, they mine the veins of ragged, old country and blues, but this time they take their act into a proper studio, experiment with their songwriting, and throw in a few more overdubs and instruments. The moaning chorus, stomping rhythm, and frailing guitar and banjo in ‘Go Back Home’ make it an immediate fan favourite and a staple of their live sets. ‘Taking It Out’ comes close to the hypnotic vibe of desert blues from Mali. ‘Dumb It Down’ counterbalances its brooding blues anger with an infectious chorus of slide guitars that mimic a New Orleans brass section.
Ten Thousand becomes the first AMGC CD to be released in Europe through the tiny English label Balling the Jack. The disc gets glowing reveiws from the British press and the Agnostics embark on full tours of the UK and Irleand that have them receiving standing ovations at prominent festivals such as Big Chill and Green Man and recording sessions for BBC radio.
In early 2010, Palmer announces he wants to take time off to devote more time to his surrealist puppet theatre troupe and home life. It allows Keelaghan and Sobolewski, along with Woolley, to embark on a collaboration with Jackson Phibes, frontman of Forbidden Dimension – something they had talked about since the release of Fighting and Onions. The result is Campfire Tales by The Agnostic-Phibes Rhythm & Blood Conspiracy.
In 2013, the group reunites after receiving several offers to play in Europe. The tour is successful. At the same time there is a rising interest in their CDs from all parts of the globe. But they call it quits once and for all.