No Depression

John Apice – February 26, 2016

Just when you believe a particular type of music has been done to death and there wouldn’t be another way of presenting it with any hint of originality and creativity – someone comes along who tweaks the genre and adds some spices that hadn’t been there before, or was never fully realized. Grant Dermody (Der-muh-dee) and his music is part blues, Appalachian-roots and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott spirit. There’s a touch of the old Geoff Muldaur style with a blues-intense harmonica reminiscent of Paul Butterfield. There’s Bonzo Dog Band, Sam Leno hi-jinks and a multitude of old traditional string band threads that haunt the notes. Is it good? Sure is…but more importantly, it’s worth a listen.

“Boll Weevil,” and “When You Left,” open the album (Grant Dermody’s third) — Grant is a harmonica virtuoso and he’s an instant confection for the ear. Banjo plucks, steady percussion, mandolin and Grant’s authoritative vocals in the mold of the late Bear (Bob Hite) of Canned Heat at times — is gutsy, gritty and rusty as needed. “When You Left,” is the harmonica-fueled blues track that Paul Butterfield would have appreciated. The speedy, tasty Orville Johnson mandolin is quite a departure since this is the blues — and it accompanies in this genre quite fine. But, this is what makes some music similar to trying an old dinner dish – with new ingredients added. Grant’s voice is uncharacteristic. He’s not a BB King, an Elvis (in his blues form), Dylan or Muddy Waters. It’s more in the vein of the old white blues-classic artists such as Butterfield Blues Band, early John Mayall, the late Duster Bennett (another great blues harp player) and Barry Goldberg Reunion. Voices such as that and with effectiveness, because it sounds as if he actually may have lived the words and stories he sings about and not just going through the motions.

“Tree of Life,” continues with this flavor but Grant’s blues ventures loosely with upright bass and fiddle. Blues a with fiddle? The melody in this Grant original is instantly infectious and the harmonica is, of course, front and center. It purrs along in this instrumental intermezzo like a imported cheese and apples between courses. Too bad this doesn’t have lyrics – I was trying to sing along so I had to make up some words. It’s that kind of an instrumental.

The guitar driven “Just a Little While,” is a very well recorded song and another original with an undercurrent of Cajun spice, hauntings with spirits of the Delta. Drummer Jockey Etienne (Slim Harpo) keeps the beat simple, steady and his cross snare beats on the rim really fills the song with color and the tick-tock metronome precision is cool and adds just a little fat to the mix.

Cedric Watson’s fiddle and Grant’s harmonica in unison opens this song with Jockey’s percussion (triangle) ringing over the instrumental that is “Sail Away Ladies.” At no time, does Grant’s music detour from the menu of this album’s theme. Each track, apparently, is carefully worked out. Building and adding in a tight presentation.

Another relevant Grant Dermody blues in the tradition of the masters is “So Sorry To Leave To You.” Grant’s harmonica is hot and his vocals are of the Barry Goldberg Reunion style — with the blues gritty, ornery, lonesome, angst-ridden and energetic. This tune is text book blues and the vocals are ripped from its grittiest, sincerest pages. “Easy Down,” has an absorbing Orville Johnson (Laura Love) guitar and Rick Del Grosso mandolin. Grant never lets up throughout this collection (thus far) and maintains his potent blues harmonica runs that are both creative and displayed with muscle. Dirk Powell provides the bass on this track. The musicians are all multi-instrumental and like the legendary Band, members switch roles as required. After all this listening (I do listen more than once) I have to admit I am not bored an iota. Not by a long shot.

The traditional “Baby Please Don’t Go,” doesn’t often get introduced with a fiddle, but – this is what surfs over Grant’s bluesy harmonica. I have heard dozens of versions of this song and now I have to add Grant’s to the one of the best pile. The mandolin, fiddle combo in the instrumental break maintains an absorbing blues feel and Grant’s vocal is one of his best. Orville’s guitar ties everything up neatly and overall it’s a blues song that may have one misstep. Yeah, instead of making you sad and blue, it just may delight you. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all. From only six men these tunes have quite a tightly tied diversification.

The title track “Sun Might Rise,” unlocks with some piano followed by smooth harmonica and the combined strong harmony vocals of Grant and Dirk Powell (piano), and Orville Johnson. It’s quite upbeat and a great bridge half way between the songs of this collection. A cool sing-a-long too. The song concludes with the vibrant harmony vocals and no instrumentals. Then it’s on to “Illinois Blues,” which is a Nehemiah Johnson song sung with continued sincere clarity by Grant and showcases again some excellent guitar, subdued Grant harmonica and a mandolin solo by Rich. This is a well-measured, poignant piece. Toward the end Grant lets loose with some inspired fiery harmonica. Grant learned his blues under the guidance of John Cephas, Honeyboy Edwards and John Dee Holeman. It’s nice that Grant provides his music the way many blues artists professed it to be: that you don’t sing the blues because you’re sad; you sing the blues because it helps you to feel better.

With that in mind comes “J’ai Passe,” another instrumental more in the tradition of Zydeco music and it all fits. “Reuben’s Farm,” follows and it too is another zydeco inspired, upbeat tune that is foot-stomping and Grant’s harmonica is not blues injected here but a string band happy electric excerpt.

“Ain’t Goin’ Back,” steps up next with its John Mayall subdued blues. Reminiscent of Mayall’s “Lying in My Bed,” off the “Empty Rooms,” album. It’s quite a good vocal and I thought only Mayall could sing the blues in a near whisper, close to the microphone with mood and intimacy, and with ambience while nimbly tripping along with exuberant instrumentation. I guess I was wrong. Grant does this one with fluency. Acoustic guitar opens “Long Gone,” and while the song is performed bare bones the stripped down amount of musicians adds to the musical drama. Dermody sings with Dirk Powell (this time on guitar) and together they paint a weary and effective picture. While it sounds like many of these songs are from the 1930’s and 40’s — the majority are actually Grant Dermody originals. Obviously, he has absorbed his history of the blues effectively and now he gives it back to us with all the dust dusted off and polish applied.

The closer is “Crossing Over,” (which could have been an even better title for the album) and Grant’s harmonica almost sounds like an accordion in its fullness. It’s another instrumental with reliable, clear Orville Johnson acoustic guitar and Dirk Powell mandolin. It all ends unceremoniously like it’s the theme to a movie. And so it should be – the entire baring of one’s blues soul – in fifteen memorable songs that take a listener on a temporary journey. A journey I plan to take again soon.

I received this CD quite a long time ago and because of a cramped schedule of listening, reviewing and writing I finally nailed it. I apologize for not getting to it sooner because these veteran musicians certainly put together a CD that is endearing, has unmitigated zeal and is enjoyable, as well as, accessible. The Seattle-based band recorded their album in Louisiana, but – of course it was – where else?

Mastered at Ardent Studios in Memphis, TN (where The Box Tops and Alex Chilton recorded) and was produced by Grant, Dirk and Orville