Legend is a word that is overused and all too commonly applied to those who either haven’t been around long enough to deserve it or have not achieved the heights we would expect, but when we talk about Dion, we can use it safe in the knowledge that this is man who has achieved just about everything.
Born in 1939, his career has seen him perform doo-wop, rock, R&B and blues, he has been a lead singer with The Belmonts and the Del Satins as well as a solo performer, he was the artist who gave us classics such as ‘Runaround Sue’ and ‘The Wanderer’, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1989, was one of only 2 rock artists to appear on the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and is still going strong at 80 years young.
So, what does a legend do when he wants to release a new album? He calls on friends and admirers from every generation and every variation of the blues to interpret an album of blues originals, largely written by Dion himself.
The first release off the album and its opener is ‘Blues Coming On’ which is a driving blues track where Joe Bonamassa guests on guitar and the beat carries us along and gets your foot tapping from the off. This is very much a duet between voice and guitar with both performers on top form and this is a cracking opener which is set to become a classic.
‘Kickin’ Child’ features blues guitarist Joe Menza and is a track written & recorded by Dion in 1965 and featured on album by the same name in 2017, but unhappy with the final version, it is re-recorded here with Menza lifting the whole track with a smooth blues guitar running through the entire track.
The familiar twang of Brian Setzer’s Gretsch accompanies Dion on ‘Uptown Number 7’, a track written in an old-fashioned gospel style and whilst Setzer’s playing is as great as ever, Dion manages to put in a laid back vocal performance that suits the tone of the track perfectly.
Jeff Beck joins Dion for the country blues inspired ‘Can’t Start Over Again’ a song about love, loss, and heartache. Hank Williams was an influence in Dion’s younger days and it’s apparent on this slowed down track, with a real feel of sorrow in both Dion’s voice and in Beck’s playing.
‘My Baby Loves to Boogie’ lifts the mood again on a track that drives along with Dion giving one of his best vocal performances on the album. This is the track that really epitomises the album for me as it has all the components I love about blues boogie. A driving rhythm, an emotive vocal and finished off with what starts out as a subtle harmonica accompaniment from John Hammond Jr. before it hits the high notes, giving me goosebumps in the process.
‘I Got Nothin’ is a typical blues track about one of those days when you feel like nothing is going right, but then you realise it doesn’t matter because you’re happy. Dion duets with Van Morrison on the vocals here, their voices complimenting each other superbly, with modern blues icon Joe Louis Walker accompanying and at times almost making this a trio of voices as his guitar sings.
We go off at a different tangent for ‘Stumbling Blues’, the mood slowing and the sax of Jerry Vivino is used to great effect as the track drifts along, with brother Jimmy Vivino accompanying on guitar and as Dion moans the lyrics, they managed to really capture the atmosphere on this one as it reminds me of one of those tracks that floats out of a jazz club in New Orleans in an American movie.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puxj-1sbTeU&w=560&h=315]
‘Bam Bang Boom’ features the distinctive guitar sound of ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons and is a track that is largely about when Dion met his Wife Susan for the first time. It grinds away in typical blues style and once again Dion gives us a vocal that belies his 80 years.
The tempo lifts once more for the upbeat ‘I Got The Cure’ which proves the blues is not all about being down and out as we find Dion bragging. With the addition of brass in the background and Sonny Landreth on guitar, this is foot stomping blues at its best.
The list of impressive guests continues as Paul Simon joins on vocals for ‘Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America)’, which whilst written many years ago, is as relevant today as ever, as it documents the racial discrimination endured by Sam Cooke in 1962 whilst he an Dion walked the streets of southern USA. This is a really moving lyric about a topic that is very much at the top of the news agenda at the moment but also about a man who misses his friend, who was taken too young.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puxj-1sbTeU&w=560&h=315]
One of the brightest stars of contemporary blues – Samantha Fish – joins for the upbeat ‘What If I Told You’ and she owns this track from the off. Don’t get me wrong Dion does a superb job of the vocal, as he gives us a story of suspicion during a love affair and how it can never end well, but you can almost hear the tears pouring from Fish’s guitar as Dion sings “I Know you’re on fire, baby…..”- and she is, working her socks off to make this the track of the album.
John Hammond returns alongside Rory Block to play slide guitars on “Told You Once in August” to give us a track that sounds totally different to anything else on the album, whilst still retaining that blues vibe. Block accompanies Dion on vocals as well, but that simple, stripped back atmosphere has been captured superbly as has the emotion in the vocals of a man who has been cheated by his woman.
We move into blues rock territory for the penultimate track ‘Way Down (I Won’t Cry No More)’ with a helping hand from Stevie Van Zandt, who rocks the track along. The subject matter is a blues staple – your woman leaving you – but this is an upbeat track despite the supposed sadness.
The final track ‘Hymn To Him’ was originally recorded for the 1987 gospel album ‘Velvet & Steel’ but was re-visited here with the help of Patti Scailfa on vocals. During recording, long-time friend Bruce Springsteen asked if he could play a solo on the track and this is the result. A sublime track to end a stunning album with.
There have been plenty of albums down the years where a musical great, who has fallen foul of fashion, has been joined by his contemporaries, but often those contemporaries have written the tracks as well, resulting in a hit album and giving the artist much needed exposure to a younger audience.
But this is different. Dion has largely written all the tracks himself and the guests are very much there to accompany an artist that has championed the blues for most of his 80 years, sometimes to the detriment of his career. The result is a fantastic album that any serious blues fan will want in their collection and through ‘Blues With Friends’, Dion has proved that whilst fashion is fickle, class is permanent.
Vocals & Guitar:Dion
Organ & Drums:Wayne Hood
Reviewed by Howard Whitelaw for MPM