Preachers, pioneers, cowboys, and The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir

THEIR NAME was inspired by an eccentric preacher from Kansas, they play music brought by the Scots and the Irish to the Southern US states, but their view of the world is shaped by the pioneer spirit of the true melting pot of North America - Canada.

The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir will make their Galway debut on Friday July 25 at 9pm, when they play Cuba*, Eyre Square, as part of the Galway Arts Festival.

The Agnostics - Judd Palmer, Bob Keelaghan, Peter Balkwill, and Vladimir Sobolewski - are based in Calgary, the largest city in Alberta state, Canada. To date they have released two albums - Saint Hubert and Fighting And Onions - with a third, Ten Thousand due next month.

The band have won acclaim for their raw, wild, take on bluegrass and Appalachian music. The List said their sound is “as much Beefheart and Tom Waits as it is Son House and Howlin’ Wolf, the Calgary foursome make a noise that will snare rock kids, folkies, and hardcore country fans”.

Grandpa Fields

Judd Palmer is a vocalist and plays banjo, low slide guitar, and harmonica in the Agnostics, he also has a wry take on life and music, and expresses it through a sometimes cynical, often humorous, and always eloquent way of speaking - as I find when I ask how the band got its name.

“The name is a bit of a spoof on the kind of names gospel choirs have,” Judd tells me. “We keep our religious beliefs quiet. I’m tending towards strange beliefs myself.”

Judd’s own diosyncratic religious beliefs are an inheritance from his larger than life great-grandfather and all around character Grandpa Fields.

“The band name is also connected to Grandpa Fields, who ran a half way house for the insane and drunks in Kansas city,” explains Judd. “He had his own religion which happens as Protestant sects - both bizarre and wondrous - proliferated throughout the US and Canada. He and his wife, Grandma Fields , were the only initiates and each Sunday they would hold church in the house for their own metaphysical purposes. Grandpa Fields would preach and Grandma Fields would be banging away on a piano, her enormous arms flapping as she did so, and all the insane and drunk boys in the house would sing along for their soup.

“My father was from Texas and Grandpa Fields never had any room for visiting family because of the insane and the drunks. Downstairs there was this enormous octopus like furnace with all the pipes going everywhere. So, Grandpa Fields hammered planks into the spaces between the pipes for the Palmer children to sleep in, beside this heaving, wheezing, monster.

“Grandpa Fields was afforded a large posterior and it proved to be his end. He and Grandma Fields drove a hearse and one day he was going up a hill when he found he had to change a tyre. While he was doing so a car came along and carried him away.”

As well as being a musician, Judd is also the author of a number of children’s books. I suggest Grandpa Fields would be a terrific subject for any author.

“I am in the midst of writing a book inspired by that gang,” he says. “Nobody really has tried to write a book featuring drunk and insane people as they should in children’s literature.”

Canada’s musical melting pot

Calgary is one of Canada’s major distribution and transportation hubs, a favourite winter sports destination, and hosts a major folk music and Caribbean festival. How has Calgary shaped the AMGC and its members into the band it is today?

“Alberta is the barbaric fringe of Canadian pioneer country,” says Judd. “It’s home to people you wouldn’t find in eastern Canada. Eastern Canada has a population that’s been there 400 years. Calgary started out as a wooden fort 100 years ago where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had to quell the drunkards.

“People out here have a kind of Texan feel as when oil was discovered here a lot of Texans, like my family, moved in, and they did what every good west Texan does, they opened a ranch. Every year for once a week we have a ranchers festival, where everybody pretends to be a cowboy and gets drunk.

“But there are people from everywhere in Calgary today so it has this rough and tumble roots to its music. It is rough as we are ranchers out here and the ghosts of cowboys and hobos wander our streets but we try to vary things and draw from the cultural traditions across the world.”

The songs and music the AMGC write, including the Sleepy John Estes and The Balfa Brothers covers they perform - are based on their individual, high octane, approach to pre-WWII blues and mountain music. What attracts the Agnostics to that era of music?

“I think there is an intensity to it, a rawness to it, it’s talking about things that go deep inside of us,” he says. “It’s music that lets escape impulses that are in a way, savage! There is something beautiful about that. When I was growing up in the 1980s it was all bands with big hair, tight pants, and synths. That didn’t connect to me but songs about the epic howling prairies and rusty trains did.”

The roots of much white American folk music goes back to the Celtic countries. From Irish emigrants came bluegrass, while the music of the Scottish settlers gave rise to Appalachian music. However it is often forgotten that these same forces were at work in Canada. The Irish settled in large numbers in Newfoundland, the Scots in Nova Scotia, while French settlers brought and preserved a kind of Celtic music that has since died out in France. All these settlers benefited from the African derived music of the black population who were brought to the New World as slaves.

“The Irish and the Scots influence came through bluegrass, which was invented by the Celts and that fused with African instruments like the banjo in the odd melting pot the Americas was then. Back then people would sit down and make music and make gospel together before they became ‘civilised’ and had to hate each other.

“Folk music extends from Texas to Alberta, along the lines of the cattle runs. I could be playing an Irish reel on the banjo and it would remind me of the blues and then much of the folk music has connections to Mariachi music. What flabbergasts me is how interconnected they all are.”

For tickets contact the Galway Arts Festival Box Office, 1-5 Merchants Road, on 091-566577. Online booking is through www.galwayartsfestival.com

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