Grant Dermody, Crossing That River (self-released, 2003)

Imagine being a Seattle schoolteacher by day and a harmonica player by night! Welcome to the world of Grant Dermody -- at least until recently, when he quit to become a full time musician.. He's backed other musicians, taught workshops, and played in the old-time band known as "The Improbabillies." Now Dermody has released his own bluesy album, Crossing That River.

Dermody's photo is right there on the front of the album, artistically blowing into a shining harmonica, so you'd think this would be a harmonica album. In a holistic sense, it is, because he blows harmonica throughout the album's 15 tracks. However, Dermody's easy-going vocals are in the spotlight, and as for the harp, it is augmented by the instrumental voices of 21 other musicians, though not all at one time! These include Improbabilly members Richie Stearns and Forrest Gibson on frets and Alaskan fiddler Scott Meyer. Some guests, like folksinger Jim Page, jazz bassist Arne Livingston, and the ubiquitous slide guitarist Orville Johnson, are also part of the Seattle milieu, but others, like harmonicist Joe Filisko and guitarist John Cephas, have come in special from out of town. Aside from guitarist and crossing-producer Orville Johnson, each guest plays on only one or a few tracks, making every track a unique but complementary vignette in God's Garden of Music.

Though the styles vary from folk to gospel to blues to old-time, all are blues-influenced and tend towards mellow even when they kick ass. A couple of weeks ago I was watching the Sea Island episode of "The Story of English" and thinking about how there were so few men as opposed to women in church singing the Gospel; they were all out at some pool hall or fishing hole with a guitar singing about Heaven and Hell. Then I heard this album and it all connected! You can just imagine Dermody and his friends out at the fishing hole or bar singing about salvation, women, and boats.

One of my favorites is the old gospel tunes, "I'm Gonna Cross That River of Jordan (One of these Days)," a perky duet with Joliet's Joe Filisko. Dermody sings as well. Not only is it difficult to tell the harmonicas apart, but at times they could be mistaken for a train! On the blues tune, "Look At the People Standing At the Judgment," the topic is similar, but here Dermody's harp is more soulful as it accompanies John Cephas' equal parts rougher and more historically authentic vocals . It's a mirror of contrast for the rest of the CD, but doesn't reflect the other tracks badly.

"Cut You Loose," is another nice blues tune; here the topic has turned to women instead of religion. The uptempo club arrangement with bass, drums, slide, and of course harmonica, does cut loose, and it's interesting to hear Demody's low key vocals holler. The similar songs, John Jackson's "Boats Up River" and Little Hat Jones' "Bye-Bye Baby," both with simple guitar (and of course harmonica) are pleasant and lazy, and equally suited to Dermody's voice and harmonica. In the latter I swear I can almost hear the harp talk. Egg-shakers and a funky slide guitar and harmonica are set loose on Joe Louis Walker's "I'll Get To Heaven On My Own." It's fun, another of my favorites and could be the anthem of pool-hall singers everywhere!

There really isn't much old-time on the album. The Improbabilly Boys play a squeaky tune called "Greasy Coat," which seems to blend well with the blues, though there's not much blues to it. My guess is that the tempo and mood are similar. Meyer and Dermody also join fiddle and harmonica for a fun, fast and squeaky old-time duet, "Yew Piney Mountain." A couple of bluesy folk ballads provide contemporary contrast for folks who like this sort of song. One is an original, the other a grassy Mickey Newberry cover ("Breakthrough" and "Why You Been Gone," respectively).

What a pleasant album for sitting aside the wading pool with a margarita without enraging the neighbors, whether they be Born Again or Pool Sharks! Everything...or almost everything works...with diverse skillful musicians and originally diverse styles on various tracks happily merging, and contrasting, rather than clashing. And best of all, what a GOOD harmonica player!

[Judith Gennett]

You can probably find Grant Dermody jamming on the Web with The Improbabillies