Grant Dermody,
Lay Down My Burden
(independent, 2010)

A Seattle-based harmonica player who usually tours with rooted singer-songwriter Eric Bibb, Grant Dermody was cutting this album when his wife Eileen died after a two-year battle with cancer, two months following Dermody's mother's passing. One would expect Lay Down My Burden to be tinged with sadness, and it is, but against manifest odds it manages not to be bleak and despairing. Endurance and an unsentimental sense of hope are the prevailing emotions in this austerely beautiful, mostly acoustic recording, which draws from folk, blues, hymns, gospel, originals and contemporary sources.

Though he considers himself primarily a blues musician, Dermody wisely does not attempt to mimic the downhome vocal styles of an earlier generation of African-American performers. He sings comfortably in his own satisfyingly expressive voice, bringing to mind other first-rate blues-influenced Euro-American folk musicians such as Geoff Muldaur and Paul Geremia without sounding like either or, really, anybody except himself. Occasionally, vocal duties are handed over to the likes of blues veterans John Cephas (on Skip James's 1931 classic "Hard Time Killing Floor"; on the new version, Cephas, who died in 2009, made his last recorded appearance), John Dee Holeman (in a gritty version of Jimmy Reed's "You Don't Have to Go") and Louisiana Red (on his own "Where Is My Friends?" -- no typo, by the way).

Working alongside a host of notable guests (at least by the standards of current blues and folk artists) such as Bibb, Del Rey, John Dee Holeman and Mark Graham, Dermody puts down a succession of sterling arrangements. On occasion the material is much traveled, two obvious examples being "Twelve Gates to the City" and "Amazing Grace," the latter a stunner in a harmonica-led instrumental arrangement. Dirk Powell's eerily conceived rewrite of the traditional Appalachian lament "Waterbound" is -- deservedly -- something of a modern folk standard. Stephen Foster's "Hard Times, Come Again No More" has been a frequent, never unwelcome presence in the roots repertoire since the Red Clay Ramblers pulled it from obscurity in the 1970s. If something like warhorses, they're all done with sincerity and conviction, and even the most cynical listener will be hard-pressed to object to hearing them again. Dermody balances these with relatively more obscure, invariably interesting songs.

Lay My Burden Down, which has the appeal of the sort of old-fashioned folk-revival recording some of us grew up with, carries the hard-won wisdom the tough take from tragedy. This will surely be ranked among the essential roots albums of 2010.

review by
Jerome Clark

17 July 2010

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