I’ve been listening to Grant Dermody’s latest release, Sun Might Shine On Me, for the last couple of days. It’s a brilliantly produced work that presents the listener with lovingly rendered performances of traditional American music and original pieces in traditional styles. For harmonica players, the record offers what amounts to a catalog of essential acoustic harmonica techniques, applied with plenty of guts and smarts to great emotional effect. In short–and there will be more details in this review, but let’s say it now–this record sets the new standard for harp-focused traditional acoustic music.
The ensemble delivers all the right stuff
Dermody is supported on this record by a Louisiana-based band that includes Dirk Powell (who produced as well), Orville Johnson, Cedric Watson, Rich Del Grosso, and Jockey Etienne. The band’s work is spare and economical, wringing maximum emotion from simple material played with grace and commitment. Grandstanding is absent, though almost every player has a moment or two in the spotlight. The overall effect is of one tradition speaking in a range of voices, with absolute unity of purpose throughout. The instruments are recorded with terrific clarity, the sound close, intimate, and complete individually and collectively, putting the listener shoulder-to-shoulder with the band in the room where the music was recorded. In short, the production is landmark for this stuff. The high quality of the production extends to the album packaging as well; I’ll never argue that the cover makes the record, but a cover that looks like somebody cared about it is a good leading indicator for music that sounds like somebody cared about it.
The harp work is stellar
On every tune, Dermody’s harp work shines. In keeping with the style, his lines are simple and direct; but almost every line sports a flourish that makes it deeply personal. His ability to manipulate tone with hands, throat, and lips is remarkable, all the more so for representing an approach to solo and ensemble sound that’s rarely heard in these days of rampant amplification (for which I take partial credit, of course). I haven’t heard hands used to such effect on a new release for years. Harmonica players who want what amounts to a master’s degree in acoustic sounds and effects for their trick bags are well advised to study this record from top to bottom.
Dermody’s work here has the twin virtues of seeming improvised and exhibiting utter precision in the articulation of his notes and the overall shape of the lines. On the second tune on this record, a blues, Dermody starts off with a powerful blast of harmonica, and I feared that he’d hit his peak in the first few seconds, but not to worry–when the solo came, he played it hard enough to make the rivets in the harp rattle, and took the song (and me) to an even higher level.
This record is like that all the way through–every time you think you’ve heard everything he’s got, he comes at you with something new and powerful. There are echoes of harp greats whose messages Dermody has clearly absorbed–Sonny Boy Williamson II comes to mind–but Dermody’s work here is so encyclopedic in its traditionalist vocabulary that echoes of other greats are not only inevitable, but essential.
Dermody’s singing is on target
Dermody’s singing is fit for purpose, meaning that he gets his messages across with economy and sincerity in a style that’s consistent with the material. In these days of televised singing competitions broadcast live to tens of millions, audiences have been trained to seek technical perfection in singing, which for this music is beside the point. Dermody’s vocals on this record hark back to a time when the size of an audience was limited by the physical space that a band could occupy and still be heard by the crowd, when singer and listeners were inevitably bound to the same place and time, and emotional certitude mattered more than technique. His range as a singer isn’t wide–certainly not on a par with his harmonica technique–but within his limited range his pitch is on target, and he knows what he’s trying to convey with every line. I found myself convinced from the first song on.
The 15 tracks on the record cover a range of roots music, with plenty of representation for the blues as well as other traditional acoustic styles (not to mention a touch of reggae). Thematically, this record has a lot of songs about loss in it, “loss” referring generally to people who’ve left, purposely or otherwise. Sadness at those losses lurks at the edges of many songs, and is sometimes right in the center. But beauty plainly presented is always at the fore in these pieces, and in that sense it’s a fitting memorial to those who’ve gone, one that acknowledges heartache without failing to acknowledge the joy that preceded it (and may someday follow, as per the record’s title).
Get the record
I repeat: this record sets the bar for acoustic harmonica records in general, and anyone with an interest in American roots music needs it in their collection. At the latest, go buy it when you finish reading this review. I ain’t bought and I ain’t foolin’.