Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir / Congregation – Nottingham Bodega Social, Wednesday August 13
There’s something not quite of this time or place about Congregation. While guitarist Benjamin picked out ethereal, Gothic twists on traditional blues figures – occasionally activating a kick drum via a foot pedal for added emphasis – vocalist Victoria maintained a mournful, otherworldly presence, as if beamed straight from a dusty 1920s photo album. The indistinctness of Victoria’s strange, slurred diction – like a Bessie Smith recording that had melted in the August heat – merely added to the mystery.
Victoria and Benjamin declared themselves thrilled to be supporting the Agnostics, and with good reason. Both acts take the blues as their broad base, shaping it into intriguing new forms. In the case of the headliners, a quartet from Calgary that have transplanted so-called “mountain music” from the Appalachians to the Rockies, their music has been informed by Beefheart’s scratchy roughness, the bruised romanticism of Tom Waits, and the energy of good old-fashioned garage rock.
Although frustratingly subdued to start with, the set gradually gained momentum, carrying the increasingly enthusiastic crowd with it. The playing was delightfully loose and instinctive, taking the sparseness of banjo, acoustic guitar and stand-up bass and building something remarkably rich and full upon it.
A dead ringer for Fidel Castro in his prime, bearded, behatted, bespectacled vocalist Judd Palmer saved his coup de grace for the climax, ecstatically riffing on his mouth organ at dizzying speed, as drummer Peter Balkwill pulled out all the stops. It was a suitably thrilling end to a fine display of ensemble playing, from a thoroughly likeable bunch of guys.