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.
FFWD to 2017
Abstract. Psychedelic. Blues. Country. Avant garde. Jazz. Progressive. North Americana. Stoner rock. North Africana. Sonic. Ambient. Exotica. Haunting. Brooding. Hypnotic. Beautiful. Compelling. These adjectives could describe the melting pot of musical moods The Soundtrack to Intersection and Music For Inside the Ku Klux Klan , but that doesn’t clarify the motion picture. Both were originally scored by Keelaghan as largely solo guitar pieces (hence the modified band name for the project).
At different times each director encouraged him to release the music. After mulling it over for an overly-extended period he enlisted Woolley and Oxoby, embellished the arrangements for some tracks, expanded others into songs, revived bits from the cutting room floor, and strung them together into two musical suites. The intention was to assemble the compositions and six-string soundscapes to play out with the dramatic arc of an auditory movie for intronauts and visually impaired persons alike. Rest assured, these were the best of intentions.
Part one is the music from Intersection, a short film by up-and-coming American director Brendan Beachman. The clever, very dark, existential comedy played at the Palm Springs International Short Fest, Oxford Film Festival, and Foyle Film Festival among others. It won an award for best editing from Rhode Island’s Sci Fi, Fantasy, and Horror Film Festival and was a daily pick on Filmshortage.com.
Part two is music originally written for BAFTA award-winning documentarian Daniel Vernon’s Inside the Ku Klux Klan that aired on British TV in 2015. Following a Missouri chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, it foreshadowed the spotlight on the resurgence of racist groups in the American socio-political landscape during the 2016 presidential election campaign. As a grim postscript to the doc, in February of 2017 Frank Ancona, the leader of the KKK chapter documented in the film, was murdered.
Beachman and Vernon similarly, but unrelatedly, contacted Keelaghan about using the music of Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir for their projects. Coincidentally, conversations with each director evolved into asking Keelaghan to take a stab at doing original scores, since he could capture more moods than the AMGC back catalogue.