Dion, Blues with Friends

Dion, Blues with Friends, KTBA Records

“Dion knows just the right way to craft these songs.” Bob Dylan

Photo: Allison Michael Orentstein

A new Dion blues album is always to be welcomed, but this one – Blues with Friends – featuring a stellar cast of blues musicians – is pretty special. Let’s face it, an album featuring Van Morrison, Paul Simon Patti Scialfa and Bruce Springsteen, Joe Bonamassa and Jeff Beck…the list goes on – has gotta be a good ‘un.

Oh, and did I mention the liner notes by none other than Bob Dylan? It’s a pity Bob, who’s no goat’s toe as a bluesman himself, didn’t contribute to the music, but let’s not be churlish. Having a few lines from the Nobel Laureate for Literature ain’t too shabby. “When you have a voice as deep and wide as Dion’s,” writes Bob, “that voice can take you all the way around the world and then all the way back home to the blues.”

He’s right, of course. Dion is a fine exponent of the blues. Though, of course, most will know him from his 1960s hits, Runaround Sue, The Wanderer, Ruby Baby and other popular songs. He had no fewer than 39 Top 40 hits in this period. But Dion DiMucci has released a series of very fine, mostly acoustic, blues albums in recent years – Bronx Blues, Son of Skip James, Tank Full of Blues – all worth getting your hands on. He has a natural affinity for the blues and points out that, going back to the heady days of his youth, his The Wanderer is essentially a twelve-bar blues song.

This Rock & Roll Hall of Famer is now in his 81st year, but his energy and passion for the blues has clearly not diminished, to go by this new album. He’s a great singer, whose phrasing is masterful – ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons who plays some characteristic ZZ Top licks on Bam Bang Boom says simply that Dion’s “singing prowess is truly stellar.”

He’s a pretty nifty guitarist too, though here he enlists the support of a list of blues guitarists right out of the top drawer – as well as those already mentioned, he has Rory Block, John Hammond, Sonny Landreth, Brian Setzer, Stevie Van Zandt, Joe Menza and Joe Louis Walker.

The opening track, Blues Comin’ On features the monstrous slide guitar chops of Joe Bonamassa, who it seems, was the first on board with the project. You know exactly where this album is going with this song as an introduction – it’s toe-tappin’, head-rockin’ electric blues with gut wrenching guitar licks. Samantha Fish also gives a knock-out performance in her guitar work on What If I Told You, and Sonny Landreth’s unmistakable slide work on I Got the Cure is another treat.

The album is blues is all the way, guitar driven, electric, slide and acoustic, but Can’t Start Over is a delightful, slow, country-tinged number with Jeff Beck’s artistry painted all over it. There’s some nice acoustic work as well by Rory Block and John Hammond on the minor blues of Told You Once in August.

For me there are no weak tracks on the album – all solid songs, great arrangements and top-notch performances. But you gotta say, the stand out tracks are those featuring Van Morrison and Joe Louis Walker, Paul Simon and the Springsteens.

I Got Nothin’ with Van Morrison’s vocals and Joe Louis Walker is a straight twelve bar blues. Van Morrison proves himself once again to be an accomplished blues singer and the interplay between him and Dion, with nice interjections by Joe Louis Walker’s licks, is a joy.

Song for Sam, featuring Paul Simon, is pretty special. Dion wrote the song a long time ago about working in a Southern State with Sam Cooke. It’s remarkably up-to-date – in the current climate, the lyric, “here in America” plaintively juxtaposed with “I never worried ‘bout the hotel I was in” and “the places I would stay, they made you walk away,” resonate loudly.

The album closes with a gospel song, Hymn to Him, from a gospel album recorded by Dion in the 1980s. Patti Scialfa came in to record the vocals and, to Dion’s surprise, brought Bruce with her, so you hear him doing some backing vocals and playing guitar. Dion is quite open about his Christian faith. From a good Italian Catholic family, he wasn’t really interested in all that until he had a spiritual awakening in the 1970s. He describes a life spiralling out of control during his years as a pop star, using alcohol and drugs. “I was at the top of my profession,” he says, “but I didn’t have any internal life.” He recounts a remarkable encounter with God in 1968 when he was freed from his addictions – “I haven’t had a drink or a drug since.” Jesus, he said, became very real to him and his life, he suggests, has never been the same.

Hymn to Him is a celebration of that faith. “Do you walk in the shadows, are your dreams filled with fear?” asks Dion. The object of Dion’s faith is the answer, “the sun through the clouds.” This is Dion’s invitation not just to share his love of the blues, but of his vibrant faith.

But whether you’re a believer or not, this is for sure one of the best blues albums released this year and a remarkable achievement at this stage in Dion’s career. We’ll leave the last word to him:

“The blues is such a wonderful gift,” Dion said. “Because it’s simple and you can express any emotion with it — joy, fear, betrayal, excitement. It’s like B.B. King once said: ‘I never knew singing about something so bad could make you feel so good!’ The blues is a beautiful form of music that God gave to us.”