Grant Dermody, the Seattle harp wizard with a panoramic view of roots music styles, both old world and new, puts his versatility on display with Sun Might Shine on Me. Surrounding himself with a solid group of accomplices, Dermody is relaxed and in charge without ever having to say so, allowing the music speak for itself.
For marketing purposes Dermody might be labeled a blues artist, and understandably so. But he is so much more than that. There is something here for everyone, and the stylistic range is indeed impressive. Even more so is Dermody’s ability to walk the length and breadth of the sonic landscape with ease.
The album opens with the traditional lament, “Boll Weevil.” Dermody’s harp leads the way, churning over the rhythm laid down by Dirk Powell on banjo and Orville Johnson on guitar. “When You Left” is another traditional tune and a more straightforward blues number. Featuring Johnson’s fine mandolin playing, and guitar and doghouse bass by Powell, Dermody is at once leader and band member, getting as much time to solo on harp as Johnson does on mandolin.
Half of the tracks on the album are originals and they fit seamlessly alongside the traditional songs Dermody chose for the record. The original compositions highlight the fact that Dermody is not just a fine interpreter but also a very good songwriter.
“J’ai Passé” and “Sail Away Ladies” spice up the offerings. “J’ai Passé” is a Cajun tune with Powell providing a beautiful fiddle line while Dermody’s harp simulates an accordion. The result is a swampy melody that oozes atmosphere. One can almost feel the humidity, taste the crawfish, and smell the storm building out on the Gulf. Clocking in at under two minutes, the only fault with the song is its brevity. “Sail Away Ladies” is a Celtic melody, and this time Dermody blows out the lines usually reserved for the Uillean pipes. Cedric Watson provides the fiddle work here and it is fine indeed.
Grant Dermody casts an interesting aura over the proceedings. His presence seems to hover over the tracks without dominating them. His singing style is relaxed to the point of being disarming. Even when he howls he seems like a likeable fellow, the sort you would want to have beers with. If you saw him at an awards show giving an acceptance speech he would most likely out-humble everyone in the room.
That being said, his vocals are straightforward, no tricks, just solid blue collar singing in an unpretentious way. His unadorned vocal presentation gives tribute to the struggles of ordinary men and women. His harp work is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, he doesn’t overblow. Secondly, he serves the song instead of himself, and allows the band members room to play. And then there is his knack for knowing when to come to the fore, and when to lay back. Those instincts do not come naturally for everyone. The album is his, but Dermody seems as comfortable as a sideman on some numbers as he does in the spotlight on others.
One of pleasures of the record is the broad mix of Appalachian, Celtic, Cajun, old timey, gospel and blues music. This is autumn back porch music at its best. The grand sweep of musical styles is breathtaking. The really striking thing is Dermody’s mastery of it all. He is able to glide across genre lines as effortlessly as a drowsy driver drifts across the lanes at three am.
In short, this album is a treasure chest of joys. Whether you are a harp fan, an acoustic roots fan, or both, this album should be on your must have list. If T Bone Burnett does another Americana film score he better have Grant Dermody’s number on speed dial. He’s that good.
Recommended tracks: “Tree of Life,” “Just a Little While” and “Crossing Over.”
Just in case you missed it and want more…
Grant Dermody’s “Lay Down My Burden,” released in 2010 during a trying season of loss, is part a work of grace, part a work of self-healing, and all a work of excellent musicianship. Featuring such renowned guests as Eric Bibb, John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, the album boasts the same broad artistic vista as “Sun Might Shine on Me.”
In the liner notes Dermody comments:
This recording is dedicated to my parents, John and Tommy Dermody, my friend and mentor John Cephas, and especially to my amazing wife Eileen Donoghue Dermody. They have all crossed over within the last three years. I carry the best of each with me. Eileen said to me once that our life is a poem and a prayer and a love song. Not too surprisingly, so is this recording.
Grieving and healing never felt so good or so sanctifying…
Recommended tracks: “Waterbound,” “Evening Train,” and “First Light.” http://grantdermody.com/home/