Clunk & Sputter. That be the title of Muerte Pan Alley’s debut CD that was released in early 2015. It is also the sound of well-worn, powerful machinery. They may be the first power trio in the roots music genre. We’ll let the musicologists and shut-in music critics argue over that one, but let’s get to the back story.
Guitarist Bob Keelaghan and drummer Jason Woolley are half the team that delivered Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir’s first two CDs (St. Hubert and Fighting and Onions). AMGC remains a cult favourite among fans of blues and country music steeped in tradition, but seasoned with irreverence and rambunctiousness. In Muerte Pan Alley, Keelaghan and Woolley are joined by Rob Oxoby: virtuoso bassist, former member of San Francisco’s psychobilly legends The Mutilators, and go-to sideman when Cousin Harley is in Calgary. Their paths initially crossed during the short-lived Hollow Brethren that also featured psych-folk singer-songwriter Clinton St. John.
While there are noticeable similarities to AMGC, Muerte Pan Alley take the music further out, conjuring images of juke joints and out-of-body-experiences in the stratosphere. They dig in the same dirt, mining early 20th century blues and country for fuel, but they take it a few miles down the road, visiting hypnotic, electric-blues trances, gypsy jazz, and the ragged edge of underground rock.
Sure, Muerte Pan Alley’s musicianship is enviable. Don’t get hung up on it, though. Envy is one of the deadly sins. Keelaghan earned himself a reputation as an all-too-modest, underground guitar hero. He shows his six-string range with hyperkinetic slide, high-speed gypsy scales, Delta finger picking, and fiddle tunes simulated on the guitar. He tackles the banjo with aplomb. He even plays the thing too. Woolley bashes out skillful, tribal, trash can rhythms that add a sonic menace to the proceedings. All the while, he never loses his rock steady rhythmic foundation centering the tunes. Oxoby’s range of textures bring extra depth to the songs. At one moment he’s driving an eighth note punk-a-billy backbeat by not merely slapping, but punishing the strings of his upright bass. A few tracks later he bows the strings with cinematic sensitivity. Audiences at their inaugural shows were taken aback that three people could generate that much sound.
Don’t get the impression this is a festival of self-indulgent soloing. It’s not. What we have here are concise songs. Sometimes the musicianship is understated, subtle alt-country (“No More Truth”). At other times it hits you over the head with its complexity (“Dance of the Yallites/Yalla”). Sometimes it delves into blues hypnosis (“Nicks & Cuts”, “Post Tornado”). But more often than not, it stomps big holes in the floorboards (“Rich Man’s Grave”, “All I Wants”, “Unknown Please”).
Yes, Clunk & Sputter is a wild ride that seems as if it could crash at any time, but Muerte Pan Alley deliver the punk-blues goods with a high-stakes, steely, poker face.