Don't we all got the blues? FFWD Magazine - Jaime Frederick

Posted by on 10 May 2004

The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir leads us down path of sorrow and despair

Once upon a time, before the days when Reverend Ron preached weekly at the left end of the radio dial as Calgary’s Blues Witness, a young whippersnapper named Bob rifled through his older siblings’ record collection, he being the youngest in his family and, of course, not having any records of his own save for Little Toot featuring Chip ’n’ Dale. And let’s say that among those prized vinyl beauties – which our hero wasn’t really supposed to be fingering, now, was he children? – there sat a battered and beaten copy of Led Zeppelin II, its sepia-tone cover art beckoning him with secrets of the past. Seized suddenly by a temptation too great to ignore, Bob lay his virginal hands upon that beastly platter, spun it on the turntable and dropped the needle, blissfully unaware of the hip-shaking sorrow that it would lead him to later in life.

Friends, the path of despair was surely fixed for young Bob at that moment: Zeppelin’s "Whole Lotta Love" blasting from the hi-fi, and him possessed by some infernal desire to have the hellhounds on his trail, just like Jimmy and Robert and the boys clearly had.

What’s that you say, children? You think that’s a rather fanciful introduction to The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir? Well, think again. Because when Page and Plant channeled the spirit of the blues through "Whole Lotta Love," they unleashed something in Agnostic guitarist and singer Bob Keelaghan that hasn’t been exorcised in his two decades as a musician – not even now, with a smoking hot country blues outfit that owes as much to Led Zep as it does to blues legends such as Willie Dixon, Skip James and Howlin’ Wolf.

If blues is a genre of miscegenation, then the Agnostics are clearly following the same crooked path as their forebears, pilfering from their heroes, putting their own ferocious spin on the music, but always giving credit where it’s due – unlike Zeppelin, for instance, who were taken to court by Dixon for ripping off his song "You Need Love" in the aforementioned track on Zeppelin II.

"(Willie Dixon) was a really smart guy," says Keelaghan. "He invented the poor man’s patent. For an old blues musician, he had a tremendous business sense…. He was the only old blues guy who was able to stand up for himself and actually go after these guys who were plundering that kind of music."

Defeating the stereotype of the big, dumb, superstitious bluesman, Dixon became one of the première blues songwriters of his age, writing numerous hits for Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson and others on the Chess Records roster. Of course, the Agnostics, being who they are, happen to be drawn to one of Dixon’s lesser-known tunes, the cerebral dirge "Weak Brain, Narrow Mind."

"The lyrics for that song are outside the stereotypical view of what the blues is about," says Keelaghan. "It’s kind of a guy observing the world and how you should behave. When people view the blues, they often think of it in terms of those same stupid cliché lyrics, like ‘My baby done left me’ and that sort of shit. "But if you delve into the music… there were a lot of interesting songwriters writing about interesting things. It just always gets distilled down to this exaggerated cliché. "The music is a lot more complex than that – a lot more interesting, a lot more rich and a lot more deep."

If you’re talking about complexity and depth, then you’re talking about The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, which is rounded out by Judd Palmer on banjo and vocals, Vladimir Sobolewski on bass and Jason Woolley on drums. I could tell you all about the hidden treasures on their brand new CD, Saint Hubert, but wouldn’t you rather discover them for yourself, be seized by the demon blues that’s got ahold of Keelaghan and the rest of these boys? Of course you would, children, of course you would.

Jaime Frederick