Friday, July 30, 2010

Joe McDermott (re-post from 2007)

Was telling someone about Joe McDermott today, and figured it was worth digging up and reviving something from the long-gone No Depression editorial site. This was originally posted in 2007.

By Peter Blackstock

A few weeks ago, amid a series of blog-entries revisiting my live-show logs from nearly two decades ago, I suggested that a long-defunct ensemble called Grains Of Faith was "quite possibly Austin's best band" of the late-1980s. I also noted, with regret, that no recordings from the group had ever made it to CD.

That wasn't quite the end of the story. The band's leader and songwriter, Joe McDermott, has in fact remained musically active, just in a different arena than the pop-folk-rock avenue Grains Of Faith pursued. He'd actually already begun to shift gears way back then; a closer examination of my logs turns up a handful of gigs in '88 and '89 by Smart Little Creatures, a children's-music side-project McDermott had put together during the latter days of Grains Of Faith's run.

Children's music eventually ended up moving from side-project to the primary focus of McDermott's songwriting and performing endeavors. This isn't a genre we've tended to cover much in our magazine's pages -- though, given that my co-editor has a four-year-old now, he's likely more attuned to the realm than either of us were a few years ago.

Still, there's something about McDermott's kids' songs that have always appealed to me, even way back in those Smart Little Creatures days. Partly it was the effortlessly tuneful nature of his songwriting; the sense of melody that made Grains Of Faith's material so memorable served his children's-music forays quite well. Beyond that, the simple sense of wonder in his words conveyed an innocent charm that I could somehow appreciate even as a dreaded grown-up.

As with Grains Of Faith, McDermott had a couple cassette releases of the Smart Little Creatures stuff. Happily, though, some of those songs HAVE seen the light of day on CD -- most recently with his new disc Everybody Plays Air Guitar. Playing it recently, I instantly recognized/remembered several of the tracks. "Our Family Car Is A Helicopter" is a beatific lark ("When mom sends us off to school, she says, 'Take your books and hat, and don't forget your parachute!'") soaring on a chorus that'll stick in your head for, well, in my case, about twenty years. "Sport Comes To The Rescue" is a spunky little tribute to the family dog; "Momma's Gonna Have A Baby" addresses the prospect of siblinghood from the kid's point of view, without glossing over the tough stuff ("There's so much to do with the baby, and we don't get much sleep at night").

There's also newer material here, from the rhythmically infectious title track and its wonderfully sly observations ("Basketball players after a dunk/Your great old uncle who used to be a punk/Hipster rads, balding dads/They play the air guitar!"), to a barbershop-style retooling of the traditional tune "I've Been Working On The Railroad", to a truly demented over-the-top live number called "Ride, Ride, Ride".

Of the older songs, the one that stayed with me the most over the years was "Anything Is Possible", which affects me in a way that's always been difficult for me to pinpoint or explain. I think it has something to do with the reality that growing up is largely a matter of accepting that not everything is in fact possible, that there are limits to what we'll be able to do, that some things may always remain out of reach, and that sometimes you have to be able to move on, beyond those disappointments of dreams that didn't come true.

I guess I was moved by the fact that McDermott could come through all of those things and still write and sing a song about how "Anything Is Possible", without any hint of disillusionment or disbelief. Maybe things don't always work out the way we grown-ups imagined they would -- but as for the kids, well, the message still rings out loud and clear: "Anything is possible, whenever we think of all that we could be..."

And somehow, in the singing, the message comes back around to us again, too.

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