Wednesday, 30 January 2008

CD Review - Tim Lothar Petersen

Cut To The Bone

By M.D. Spenser

Evocative guitar and haunting vocals grace this impressive collection of Delta Blues.

Petersen, a Dane, recorded this debut in his living room, and it was well worth the effort. The album does more than echo the past: seven of the 10 cuts are originals, and a fine batch of songs they are.

The opener, ‘Easy Baby’, is gentle yet insistent, propelled by Petersen’s acoustic guitar: He urges a woman to leave her no-good man.

And there’s the mournful, sparsely sketched ‘Highway 424’, in which the singer searches for the words to tell a friend in trouble, presumably with drugs. “The road ahead sure is rough/ Tell me, don’t it hurt to lie to the ones you love?” he asks.

The covers are great, too. Petersen deploys a lovely slow slide on Charley Patton’s ‘High Sheriff Blues’. Ledbelly’s ‘Bound To Go’, by contrast, features lively fingerpicking – technically superb and great fun.

If you’re going to base an entire album around your solo acoustic guitar, versatility is critical – and Petersen has it. Each song has a different feel.

But it’s the originals that set this album apart. ‘Don’t hesitate’ – a song fully imagined but lightly painted – is a mellow folk-Blues about falling in love. The song is a joy.

Petersen understands that the first Delta blues artists were creators. One cannot emulate them through imitation, but only through innovation. By taking the Blues forward he honours its past. Tim Lothar Petersen is an artist from whom we can expect a lot.

Friday, 25 January 2008

CD Review - Jim Murray

My Time To Be Alone
Jim Murray

This collection of pre-war Blues makes for a pleasant but undistinguished CD. It features fine acoustic guitar work – old-timey, relaxed, but remarkably proficient.

It’s the solo debut for Murray, a long-time sideman in his mid-50s. “I now feel for the first time that I have something to say solo,” he writes in the liner notes.

Well, not really, other than that pre-war Blues is great music. He includes chestnuts from Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and others. But do Blues aficionados really need another faithful rendition of ‘32-20 Blues’?

And, despite the different songwriters covered, there’s a sameness to Murray’s vocals. He uses a variety of guitars, but there’s a sameness in his picking, too. One wishes he’d found a friend who could play harmonica on a couple of cuts, just for a different sound.

Murray apologises in the liner notes for not reproducing each note exactly as it was first recorded. But he should deviate from the originals more, not less. This is the Blues, for Pete’s sake.

Let’s not be too harsh: This is not a bad album. It’s a nice record to put on, maybe when you’ve got friends over for conversation. But pretty soon you’ll forget which song you’re listening to. And you’ll probably have to pick up the CD case to figure it out.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Music Interview - Solomon Burke

Soul Great Looking Toward The Future at Age 67

By M.D. Spenser

The phrases roll off his tongue like songs, no less heartfelt for having been polished over the years. Solomon Burke is one of the greatest soul singers in history; he knows how to communicate from the heart.

“The wonderful thing about being in England and being in Great Britain,” he says by telephone from his home in California, “is that you feel the royalty, the magic. You know that there’s something special happening there. The people are who they are. Everybody’s real.”

Burke has returned from the Led Zeppelin gig in London, a tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, the founder Atlantic Records, for whom Burke recorded decades ago. At a private party after the show, Burke performed with other soul greats, including Ben E. King, Percy Sledge and Sam Moore, who was half of Sam and Dave.

Burke’s hit-making heyday was 40 years ago. His place in the pantheon of soul artists is assured. He’s had himself crowned in innumerable concerts “The King of Rock and Soul.” One could be forgiven for thinking he might be a tad pompous, a bit blasĂ©, a man living on the glories of the past.

Nothing could be further from the truth. He will not begin an interview without asking about your family and responding warmly to a question about his own. (“Wonderful!” he exclaims. “Blessed, blessed, blessed.”) You feel that he wants to make friends.

At 67, he still lives for the future, for the record he is about to record, for the songs yet to be sung. And he is nothing if not enthusiastic – about life, about this conversation, about the channel tunnel – “To be able to do that in my lifetime!” – and about the Zeppelin gig.

“It was one of the most exciting moments of my career to be part of that,” he says.

Soul was founded in part by shouters like Wilson Pickett and Joe Tex. Burke, blessed with a powerful voice, could shout with the best of them. But he brought a sweetness to the genre as well. One of his early hits was ‘Just Out Of Reach,’ a wonderfully lush ballad that had been recorded earlier as a country song.

What made his contribution to the creation of soul different? No words could be better than his own:

I think the idea of me born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and coming from a very religious family, and locking into all phases of music – enjoying country music and pop music and rock and Blues and jazz and opera. My mind was open to every ounce of music. I wanted to know and wanted to hear – and I’m still learning – about music.

And knowing that music is a healer, and that there’s a magic that music has that can cross nations and language barriers, oceans and seas, and calm wild beasts. And this is the magic of music – if it’s right, if it’s the right chord and the right tone, and if it’s the right sound, the right words.

You know, there’s something so special about just that
word, music – I believe it’s heavenly. I know that this is something that God has given many of us a chance to be part of. Because it’s such a heavenly thing; it’s something that the angels endure and are part of. Music!

Although Burke was a sensation in his teens, he was at one point blacklisted by an influential DJ, and unable to get his songs on the air. He quit music and worked in the family funeral home.

At length, he was lured back into the business – a producer blockaded the funeral home with a Cadillac and would not move it until Burke agreed to record again. He was revered by fellow artists but he never crossed over into the white audience, the way singers like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Picket did.

But his career was given a boost when the Rolling Stones recorded two of his songs, ‘Cry To Me’ and ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ on their early albums.

Some soul singers – notably Irma Thomas, from whom the Stones took ‘Time Is On My Side’ – were bitter. Audiences wanted black songs, it seemed – but only if they were sung by white folks.

But bitter is not what Solomon Burke is about. Just ask him whether his career was helped or hurt by what Americans call the British Invasion of the 1960s:

Mine was helped! (He laughs heartily.) Yes, please – you know, one more time! Do it every month, if you can! It was wonderful for me. My music was widened to a greater audience by so many great artists, taking our music around the world and opening doors that I could never open, and giving me the opportunity to walk into those same doors: Being an artist that says I performed at the Royal Albert Hall over five times in my career – that’s a triumph!

Burke first toured Britain in 1964. The travel opened the world to him to such an extent that he now believes all kids, before they go to university, should spend a year touring the world – a radical thought for the United States, where, for much of the population, the rest of the world remains a mystery.

The memories are still fresh:

I came over with Doris Troy. We were with Atlantic records and she had a great record called ‘Just One Look.’ And I was so thrilled and excited to meet people like The Undertakers (a ’60s Liverpool-area band). I did get a chance to meet a lot of great people – Tom Jones. And being in the great country was just so overwhelming, so magical to me, where the queen was! It was as royal as it should be.”

When the radio play waned, Burke toiled on in relative obscurity. Video from his middle years shows him to be an enormous man, but still an agile dancer and extraordinarily vigorous.

The 1986 album, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” recorded when Burke was in his 40s, may have gone largely unnoticed. But it reveals a soul singer in peak form, the vocal power undiminished, the sweetness more poignant than ever.

Like many soul singers, Burke dabbled in Blues. And just what does he see as the relationship between soul and the Blues?

“The feeling,” he replies. “The experience. The moment. The time. The pain. The hurt. The joy. The expression that releases the confidence or the sadness.”

Film soundtracks helped return his name to wider attention. His rendition of ‘Cry to Me’ was used in “Dirty Dancing.” The Blues Brothers covered ‘Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.’

Then one day in the airport in Portland, Oregon, in 2001, Burke found himself being pestered by a funny-looking guy. It was the beginning of an extraordinary career renaissance:

I was blessed by a gift from God that a man came along in Portland, Andy Kaulkin, and said to me, “Hey, man, I want to talk to you.” And I thought he was some guy from a football team or something. He didn’t look like a record president. He looked like a young teenager, you know – hippie.

“Hey, man, I got an idea!”

And I said, “Oh, my God. Is this the same guy again?”

When he finally caught up with us, we were on the same plane together. And when he told me he was with Fat Possum, I said, “Oh, my God. Another football team wants me to be a mascot. Prior to that, somebody wanted me to be a mascot of the Big Bears. Now here’s some guy wanting me to be a possum. This is my week for animals, I guess. And when he told me it was a record company, I almost turned around and kissed him.

“Record company! That’s the name of your company? Great!”

The resulting album was titled, appropriately, “Don’t Give Up On Me.”

Produced by Joe Henry, it included songs written for Burke by Dan Penn, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan. Almost 50 years after his career began, Burke won his first Grammy, for best contemporary Blues album. And he won a new generation of fans, as well, thanks to Kaulkin pestering him on the plane.

It was one of the greatest things in the world. We have become great friends. I talk to him all the time. We talk to one another, and we share – and he’s such a warm person.

Because, he’ll call me and say, “Solomon, just heard your record, I love it.” You know, and it’s not even on their label.

It was the first label that ever gave me my royalty checks, my first real royalty checks. Fat Possum.

C’mon, man, would you believe that? You know, you say here’s a guy that’s been on all the labels in the world, and his first real royalty check is with Fat Possum? But how wonderful! How usual life can be if you live it.

His most recent album is called “Nashville” – a country album recorded in Buddy Miller’s living room, featuring duets with Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris and Patty Loveless. It brings Burke full circle – “Just Out Of Reach” having been a country song – and he ranks it among the best of his career.

As a kid, I used to listen to the country music of Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers, Hank Williams and all those great people, and, oh, just on and on and on.

And later on, I loved so much Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. To me these are just legends. Patsy Cline. Incredible.

And to have the opportunity to go to Nashville and actually record with Buddy Miller and some of the great musicians, and to meet the queens of country, to perform with me, and to sing
with me?

I’ll tell you, the honour was mine.

Country music is so special, because it tells a message immediately, within the three-minute period. You know what happened, from beginning to end.

The Blues tells you, “Hey, I’m hurt. I’m in pain. I’m suffering. You mistreated me. You misused me.”

But sometimes the Blues leaves us hanging. You don’t know if the person’s ever going to get well. You don’t know if the person ever came back: “Baby, you’ve gone, you’ve gone, you’ve gone.”

Well, did she ever come back? Did she ever call you? Did she ever write you? Did you ever see her again?

At least with a country song, the guy says (he starts to sing into the phone): “Baby, you’re gone, and I saw you had a richer one. And y’all had two babies and that’s OK, because the baby looks just like me.” You know? Boom! It leaves you with a thought.

The last few years, Burke said, have been immensely satisfying, bringing renewed acclaim, new fans, more record contracts and performing opportunities. Great artists wait in line to record with him.

Brand new day. Brand new way. New way to step. New way to move. New way to breathe. New places to go and new people to meet. New hands to shake. And what a gift! After 50-some years it’s been – I started recording in 1954. How many people today can say that? That are still recording? That still have a record deal. This is amazing! A gift from God! And I’m still waiting to do more. And to do better. And I’m still learning.

The word is to move, and to keep moving, to keep going forward, never backwards, and always believe that there’s a greater way and a better way. There’s no yesterdays. Everything is tomorrow. Because today is almost over.

Burke uses a wheelchair now. He performs seated, but he dances up a storm on his special concert throne.

He says his health is fine. But he has severe arthritis and needs hip replacement and knee replacement. He must lose 140 more pounds before the surgery can be done. He has spent most of his life very large but very vigorous – his 21 children attest to that – but he has at last decided to do something about his weight.

He is working out in a pool under medical supervision. “I’m loving it,” he says. “Oh, you should see me in that pool. I’m dangerous. I could be in a dance marathon in that pool!”

And when he says “Nashville” is among his best albums ever, he means, of course, until the next one, which he is about to start recording. Talking about it, he sounds like a kid opening a Christmas present.

“I have a great producer, Steve Jordan, which I’m very excited about,” he says.
He pauses to ask his manger, “Can I mention somebody?” But he doesn’t wait for the answer, and plunges ahead.

“I have great songs that are just so incredible,” he continues. “And I just – I can’t help it. I got a song from Eric Clapton that I can’t keep still about, that he wrote for me. Oh, my God, I’m telling you. If this song is not a hit, I’m going to just walk around with a baseball bat.”

He laughs a great belly laugh.

Some soul singers have been at the mercy of their labels, and willing to record any song put before them. Not Burke, who rejects some songs and demands the lyrics on others be changed.

Every song that I record must have meaning and a story. And I must be able to feel that story and be able to relate to that story.

Because there’s no other way for me to sing it, if I can’t relate to it to tell the story to someone else.

Because knowing that every hurt that I’ve had, someone else has had 20 times more the hurts. For every tear that I’ve cried, a million tears have been shed. To be able to say, "I understand."

Before you can say you understand, you have to go through the paces. You have to go through the hurt, you have to go through the pain. You have to know what love is about. You have to live it, to understand it, to feel it, to sing about it.

That’s why so many of the young people today are stuck on songs that only have one line. Because that one line is all they know. "No, no, no, no, I don’t want to go to rehab." That’s it!

Burke hopes to return to Britain soon. He’s great friends with Jools Holland, on whose New Year’s Eve Hootenanny he appeared two years ago. He remains friends with Tom Jones, whom he met on that long-ago tour in 1964.

And even if not so many people know his name, he’s excited that his songs have become part of the popular culture, not only in America but over here, as well.

I’m thrilled to come on the television in England and hear ‘Everybody needs somebody’ being sung for a candy commercial. C’mon! It’s incredible! I wanted to go out and buy the candy! Celebrate! C’mon, gimme some of that candy! How wonderful that is.

As the interview ends, Burke thanks you for having spent so much time with him. During the conversation, he has asked about your family and your travels. He has laughed, cracked jokes and told stories. He has sung. Before ringing off, he asks you to keep in touch with him.

He has done everything he could to make a connection. You feel you have a friend, one who has opened himself to you, one to whom you, likewise, could open yourself.

With skills like that, it’s no wonder the man know how to put a song across.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Pain, Me and the Voodoo Doctor

By M.D. Spenser

I lay face down on the treatment bed whilst a man I’d met only a few minutes before used his forefinger like a hammer to drive needles into my flesh.

He chatted all the while, trying to divert my attention.

“What do you do for a living?” (Thwack!) “Oh, that’s so interesting.” (Thwack!) “How long have you been doing that?” (Thwack!)

I’m a sceptic by nature and a bit of a traditionalist. I like things that have proven themselves over time, like old shirts, my favourite running shorts, and what some people refer to as “the germ theory of disease.” I shy away from change, the occult and medical treatments that smack to me of shamanism.

Yet here I was with my face lodged in a hole in the bed, letting some guy try to fix my hamstrings by using the pin cushion theory of treatment. How, I wondered, had it come to this?

The story began months earlier. Training with Julian Goater, a former world-class runner, I had gotten into my best shape in a dozen years. The training improved my mental toughness, too. In the Taunton Marathon on April 2, I flogged myself through the final six miles with what I realized in retrospect was not mere fatigue but genuine injury.

I took time off from running after the marathon, of course. But when I returned to the familiar routes around Frensham Ponds, I could not get my hamstrings sorted no matter what I did.

I rested. No luck. I tried to build back up. No luck. I saw a physiotherapist who inflicted painful deep tissue massage and prescribed stretches. (I had neglected flexibility in my training; by this time, I’d had a stiff neck for months.) But the pain persisted. Week by week, my hard-earned fitness left me.

One evening, as I ran through the woods with the club, a fellow member of Farnham Runners, the club to which I belong, came up behind me.

“Are you injured?” she asked out of the blue.

“Yes,” I said. “Why?”

“You’re running sideways,” came the reply.

It was a shock to realize I was sidling down the path looking more like a pretzel than an athlete. I had to do something.

Months earlier, Julian had recommended that I see David Reynolds, a registered osteopath, acupuncturist and Chinese medical herbalist with an office in Cranleigh, in southern England. The sceptical part of me had rejected the idea out of hand. But the just-in-case part of me had pocketed the card Julian handed me. I dug it out now.

And so it was that on Sept. 5, more than five months after my marathon, I found myself chatting with a man who was hammering needles into me.

“Had any interesting assignments recently?” Dave asked. (Thwack!) “Really? What did you think of the situation there?” (Thwack!)

When he had finished his hammering, he sat down to continue the conversation, leaving me lying there bristling like a porcupine. I asked how many needles were in me. The answer was 26 – 10 in my stiff neck and shoulder and another 16 in my right hamstring and buttock.

I tried to be polite, but inside I wondered grimly if I had handed myself over to a practitioner of voodoo. Forever after, when I told my wife that I had another appointment with the voodoo doctor, she knew who I meant.

Dave turned out to be an extraordinarily sharp, well-informed and engaging guy. He broke his leg when he was 17, and then spent the next nine months in hospital because his case was mismanaged.

“It put me off trying to go to medical school,” he said. And the episode also spurred his interest in alternatives to traditional Western medicine.

He qualified as an osteopath in 1983 and began his career in a practice in London where acupuncture was also used. He started his study of the technique there. In all, he studied acupuncture for five and a half years, learning from Chinese, Vietnamese and Western teachers.

Now 47, he has treated competitors in various sports, including rugby, football, golf, motocross, Formula 1 – and, of course, running.

“People you’d know, as well,” he said.

He did not just begin by sticking needles into me. He had me stand in front of a mirror. One of my shoulders sloped downward more steeply than the other. He had me lie down on the bed. My left leg, he said, was shorter than my right.

This problem he attacked by performing an adjustment on my pelvis. He wrapped his arms around me, then twisted me with a sudden, powerful jerk. My hips cracked with a noise so loud that people two doors down must have jumped out of their chairs. I let out an involuntary yell, not from pain but from surprise.

He cracked my back, as well, and popped my neck once to each side, making a noise that sounded like sniper fire coming from over the hill.

Having corrected my structural problems, he worked to heal my hamstrings with acupuncture. He used needles .25 millimetres in diameter, threading them through guide chutes before thwacking them in with his finger. The ones in my backside he was driving in to a depth of an inch an a half.

That, though, depends on the patient. “On a very large person from Florida, we could be using four-inch needles,” he said.

It seems odd that sticking a bunch of needles into someone could cure injury. But, according to Dave, the process is not that complicated.

“In acu-puncture, directly needling affects the injured tissue, which triggers a healing response,” he said. The effect, he said, is “biomedically measurable.”

None of it hurt. Not the pelvic adjustment, not the neck cracking, not the needles. Actually, I felt loosened up a bit.

In the following days, very gingerly, I began training again. When I returned to Dave a week later, I thought maybe I felt a little better, but I couldn’t be sure. Maybe the effect was just psychological.

Over the ensuing weeks, as I continued my appointments with Dave, I increased my training and even ran a couple of races. Little by little, it became evident that I was getting better. In time, I even returned to training with Julian, which involves hard effort and speedwork.

Finally, I realized that I could train at any level I wanted to. After six months of injury, I was elated. I felt like I’d won the lottery.

Dave said he occasionally sees people who have tried a raft of treatments first and come to him only as a last resort. But these days, as the benefits of acupuncture and osteopathy are more widely accepted, those cases are rare. Most people come sooner rather than later.

I’m just behind the times. And, the sceptic in me remembers, you can’t prove anything with a single case. Perhaps my hamstring was just ready to heal after a few months. And maybe my year-long stiff neck just decided to go away at the same time.

But I don’t think so. And you can bet that, the next time I’m hurt, I’m going to get my sceptical self into Dave’s office a lot quicker than five months.

CD Review - Craig King


If you have any feelings for classic soul-blues, Craig King’s debut CD could be one of the better albums you’ve run across in years.

King’s impassioned vocals make him sound like Robert Cray before he lost his way, only grittier. King is backed by a fine horn section, with killer guitar, sizzling organ and a good chorus of back-up singers.

The thing here is the funky beat. There’s a bit of ‘Superstition’-era Stevie Wonder here, a bit of Stax there. There’s the obvious mix of faster songs and slower ballads.

Best not to concentrate on the words; they can detract from the fun. (In ‘It's On The Inside’, the message is that you should judge a person by what’s on the inside – duh.)

It’s hard to find much information about King. A web search yields the facts that he’s from Pittsburgh and he ‘fell in love with music at a young age.’

But King is not the real issue. In the notes, he thanks Mike Sweeney and Jeff Ingersoll for the call. Ingersoll, guess what, is the owner of Bonedog Records, and Sweeney often writes songs for Bonedog. He wrote 9 of the 12 songs on this CD.

They were looking for a singer and they rang up Craig. This is essentially a factory production.

So? Motown and Stax were factories, too. Some of the best in history have been in-house songwriters.

Bonedog’s web site says it “was created to help artists who were pioneers of 40's 50's, 60's and 70's and contemporary artists who embrace these roots.” Whatever. This is great stuff.

You might want to buy this CD and wait eagerly for King’s sophomore effort. But from the sound of it, go for more Bonedog CDs. They've got something going on at that shop. Check ’em out.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Music Interview - Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir

Canadian Band Combines Blues, Bluegrass for Raw, Honest Sound

By M.D. Spenser

Out of Canada, howling like wind through the chinks of a cabin, comes a sound so traditional it evokes something primal and yet so new you’ve never heard it before.

It is the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, a four-piece band from Calgary that combines Blues, bluegrass, Appalachian folk and attitude into a rough, raw sound all its own. At its best, this music creates a hypnotic effect in which players and instruments and audience all become one, where nothing else matters but everything is included and you don’t wake up until the music stops.

The band was formed early in 2001 and played its first gig on only a week’s preparation – three rehearsals. Members had in mind playing small clubs in the area, nothing more.

“We accepted from the start that our music is, well, odd – by which I mean it’s not ever going to be popular, exactly,” said Judd Palmer, one of the founders.

But after that first impromptu gig, people kept asking them to play more. And more. So, three or four gigs down the road, the members started to talk seriously about what direction the band should take.

Nearly seven years later, AMGC’s music is still odd. It’s never going to outsell Britney Spears, nor even, for that matter, Keb’ Mo’. But the band has moved far beyond the local club scene. Based in part on its 2005 release, “Fighting And Onions,” and in part on the intensity of its live performances, AMGC has won an international following – not least in the U.K., which it toured in September.

“The U.K. folks seem to like us,” said Bob Keelaghan, another of the band’s founders. “We get a lot of interest. We haven’t had a stinker of a gig over there yet.”

The band’s origins lie in a near-hallucinatory experience Palmer had one day as he staggered around the mountains, perhaps in the grip of altitude dementia.

“I found myself bellowing oaths at the crags that there were Gods in the rocks, and that they deserved a gospel music of their own, a mountain gospel, in fact,” he said.

But this wouldn’t be the same as the traditional gospels, he told himself. This would be an agnostic gospel. As the dementia really took over, he imagined he could form an agnostic mountain choir, good people who would join in loud and raucous hallelujahs – not exaltation of religion but enthusiasm for mystical feelings, the kind that can grip us all, religious or not.

“I clambered down from the mountaintops,” he said, “with this big plan for a huge band of people who would stomp and holler and bang and clang and shout and therefore be overwhelmingly entertaining.”

In the end, only four people showed up for rehearsals. The huge choir remains more an aspiration than a reality.

But bang and clang they do. The first drummer, Jason Woolley, who plays on “Fighting And Onions,” had a drum kit that included pots, pans and, said Keelaghan, “a big piece of metal that looked like an Italian car’s muffler.” Woolley left, having felt the need for a more stable job. But his replacement, Pete Balkwill, is no more conventional. On one of his cymbal stands hangs a Belgian army helmet.

And the band stomps and hollers, too. Palmer and Keelaghan handle the lead vocals; neither will ever be mistaken for Sinatra. With voices that sound like five miles of gravel road, their singing can evoke wind howling at the mouth of a cave, or maybe someone in therapy giving a primal scream.

Keelaghan, a guitarist, never sang until he got into Delta Blues, songs that didn’t work without vocals.

“Since it was the Blues that got me going, I wanted to get a throaty resonance,” he said. “Many stores don’t sell throaty resonance, so I had to find it on my own.”

But he found inspiration in the singing of Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart, and that of the renaissance Bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart. And both of them, Keelaghan believes, were influenced in turn by the great Delta country Blues singer Charley Patton.

Keelaghan describes his own style as “Delta Blues yowling laced with high lonesome wailing.”

Patton was active in the 1920s and ‘30s. And, for all its volume, clatter, Italian mufflers and Belgian helmets, AMGC’s music has the feel of that era. Palmer plays banjo, harmonica and fiddle; Keelaghan contributes his Delta Blues guitar; Vladimir Sobolewski anchors the mix with his upright bass; and all of this is played, of course, over the clang and bang of the current drummer.

Four of the 18 cuts on “Fighting And Onions” are covers. One, “Look Up Look Down That Lonesome Road,” is traditional. The others were written by Son House, the Rev. Gary Davis, and Skip James – all Bluesmen whose careers date to the ‘30s.

But these covers are not musicologists’ cerebral revivals, faithful note-for-note to the originals. Far from it. These are old Blues songs warped through the unique sensibilities of this band.

For Keelaghan, the process of making someone else’s song his own starts with mistakes. He doesn’t sit with the CD and try to get every note perfect. Sometimes he learns the song from memory, as it has been filtered through his mind, then revises it later when he learns the lyrics. He’ll turn a major chord into a minor, or change the tuning, using a drop-D, for example, instead of an open tuning. But he does want to keep the feeling of the original intact.

The sound of these covers, traditional yet original, can best be described as Delta Blues meets old-time Appalachian folk.

“Those types of music have a lot of crossover,” Keelaghan said. “Both are intense forms of music. Many of the songs are modal, in that they mess with major and minor while hanging on one or two chords. Our theory is that, at some point in the evolution of those musics, they mingled and interbred, but for political and social reasons, America split them apart. I guess we’re reconciling that.”

The originals are in the same style. The album “Fighting And Onions” opens with a violin slowly sawing out of tune, as it might sound on the front porch of a tumble-down shack. The song, with no words until it is reprised to close the album, is “Stay Here For Awhile – fittingly, an invitation.

Some cuts are frenetic, bluegrassy, rough and noisy, like “Buried Them In Water.” The music to that song is original but the lyrics are from the late Howard Finster, a minister and acclaimed folk artist who lived in north Georgia, in the American South. Finster lived in the grip of life-long obsession – or inspiration, if you prefer – creating art like a madman and painting pictures, his own words and biblical verses over anything in his path – bicycles, automobiles, buildings and what have you.

Finster and AMGC make a good fit – inspired, artistic, crazy perhaps but eclectic and utterly unconcerned with fashion.

Other originals – “Oh Sorrow,” for example – are slower and more haunting, Bluesy but still twangy.

There’s no template here. Five of the cuts on “Fighting And Onions” are under a minute long; a sixth is only 1:04. The longest is 5:25. This band does whatever the hell it wants, whatever feels right – a lot like Finster. There’s freedom in knowing you’ll never outsell Britney.

The music is so rough and genuine that almost every note, intentionally or not, carries with it implied criticism of the glossiness and shallowness of contemporary culture.

“I’m not a fan of consumer culture,” Keelaghan said. “The masses get hung up on the product and not the ingredients. Sugar and fat are no good for you? No kidding! And it’s in nearly every damn pre-packaged food product! Do they realize that many celebrities are retards and what they do in their personal lives means not a stitch more than what regular folks do in theirs?”

And so it is with popular music, too, he said. People who listen to what’s on the charts give no thought to how the music is made, what the ingredients are. They don’t know that some bands don’t play their own music, that some singers have their voices altered with pitch correction, or that the musicians aren’t even in the same room at the same time.

But the ingredients affect the music. “To me, most of it sounds devoid of feeling,” Keelaghan said.

The album title “Fighting And Onions” comes from “Under Milkwood,” the radio play by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (from whom Bob Dylan took his adopted name). In the play, a sea captain is haunted by the spirits of drowned sailors. They come to him in the night and ask if life is still as they remember it, if their favourite things are still around.

“How’s it above?” one asks.

“Is there rum and lavabread?” asks another.

“Bosoms and robins?” asks a third.

Yet another, thinking of what he misses most, asks, “Fighting and onions?”

These are symbols of life. This is a music that is pungent, flavourful, full of life and full of fight.

But what is AMGC’s music, sometimes cacophonous, always off the beaten track, about? It’s not dance music; it’s not meant to soothe the savage breast; these are not love songs or serenades.

What, to these players, is the purpose of music?

It’s a hard question to answer directly. Keelaghan and Palmer have talked about boogie hypnosis, the trance that rhythmic, one-chord songs bring on. And the music is about communication, too – union, a form of oneness.

As Keelaghan studied pre-World War II Blues, he was struck that no one sang or played half-heartedly. AMGC wants to communicate that same intensity – whether the emotion is sorrow, fear or joy – without relying too much on amplification. When audience members sing along, or stamp their feet, or roar with approval, then that has been achieved.

“For the last few years, I’ve been big on the idea of transcendence through music,” Keelaghan said. “Those are the moments when we play, or I play, that are so good nothing else is noticeable until the song ends. The fingers and the strings are one. You don’t make mistakes. You take musical chances in the moment and they succeed. Everyone is on the same page and you know it. The audience knows it, too. That’s pure communication through music. It doesn’t happen very often, but I’ve had that more with this band than any other.”

Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir will record over the winter and hopes to release a new CD next spring or summer. They hope, also, to visit the U.K. in 2008, this time for a longer tour.

The band’s success has surprised its members, given that their ambition was just to play local clubs. But they know they’ve got something going.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Palmer said. “I think there’s plenty more to explore about the forms of music that inspire this band.”

CD Review - Bessie Smith

Blues Queen: The Definitive Collection

Tutored by Ma Rainey and an inspiration to Janis Joplin, Bessie Smith was vital to the development of the Blues. This superb overview of her recording career, which began in the early 1920s and lasted a decade, gives voice to all the emotions that make up the Blues – sadness, defiance and joy.

“I swear I won’t call no copper/When I’m beat up by my papa/Tain’t nobody’s business if I do,” she sings, years before Billie Holliday. It’s an assertion of power. Sometimes the only defiance available to the oppressed is handling misfortune the way they alone decide.

Smith, who lost both parents by age 9, became the highest-paid black performer of the ’20s. She’s backed on these 24 tracks by a who’s who of the era’s musicians, from Louis Armstrong to Benny Goodman.

But her singing’s the attraction. She had a voice so true the hiss of records made 80 years ago falls away, unnoticeable. As the excellent liner notes say, Smith, the Empress of the Blues, had “a strong personality which she imposed on every tune she chose to sing.”

The tunes she chose stand the test of time. Wonder where Clapton got “Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out”? Smith recorded it in 1929 as she was about to enter her own lean years.

The Blues gave way to jazz. Smith sank into alcoholism. She died in a car accident in 1937, aged 43. Her grave remained unmarked until 1970, when Joplin, herself months from death, bought her a headstone.

This collection illuminates the arc of Smith’s career, from the Dixieland joy of “Cakewalkin’ Babies (From Home)” to the sorrow of “St. Louis Blues.” One can imagine the tears that flowed from seeing her in person.

But this is what’s left to us, and it’s well worth owning.