Review: Dion, ‘Blues With Friends’ – He Continues His Hot Blues Winning Streak

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I texted a friend of mine last Saturday, Drummer Blake. I wanted to alert him to a new song “Blues Comin’ On” by Dion that features Joe Bonamassa. Blake and I had seen Bonamassa a few years back (Concert Review: Joe Bonamassa & The 4 Horsemen of the Salinapocalypse Slight Return). I knew he’d like Bonamassa’s guitar work on the track. Blake is nothing if not a big guitar fan, he’s seen Yngwie Malmsteen for God’s sake. He responded the same way I did a few years ago when I heard Dion singing “New York Is My Home” with Paul Simon, “Dion is still alive?” Indeed he is, and he’s got the blues.

New York’s (or more specifically the Bronx’s) Dion DiMucci known simply by his first name was a big star in the late 50s/early 60s. He started off with his doo-wop back-up group the Belmonts but later went solo. He had a string of monster big hits including “Run Around Sue” and “The Wanderer.” He was big in that time period between Elvis Presley’s entrance into the Army and the British Invasion. His music occupies that same era as Sam Cooke’s prime. Since he’s from the Bronx the man is a huge influence for  many of the singers from New York who followed after him. Namely, Lou Reed, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen have all cited him as an influence. That’s pretty good company.

The guy has quietly had quite a career. It’s like he’s a smart, singing Forrest Gump. As I mentioned, he was big on the doo-wop, pre-British Invasion scene. His career lost some steam and he returned later in the 60s with earnest protest music like “Abraham, Martin and John.” In the 70s he recorded an album with Phil Spector like Leonard Cohen and John Lennon did. He even had a religious period like Bob Dylan. He may have left the white-hot spotlight of stardom, but he has always been around doing rockstar stuff.

My introduction to Dion came when I was a child. I found out about Dion’s music from the most unlikely of places, my mostly non-musical father. When I was a wee lad in grade school I had to share a room with my little brother. My parents weren’t even cool enough to provide bunk beds. We had two single twin beds crammed into different corners in a small room, like boxers in neutral corners. I think back about that now and about my brother and can’t help but think, that poor bastard had to share a room with me. We had a small black-and-white TV that was my dad’s when he was in the Army with the rabbit ears antenna so we could sort of watch snowy television. My brother also had a record player. And at some point, he rescued a small metal-wire rack of singles that my father had collected before he got married. Apparently marriage ended any infatuation with music that he’d had prior.

There were some amazing gems in that pile. He had Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock.” He had several Ray Charles and Johnny Cash singles. These records didn’t even have the paper dust sleeves on them, just naked vinyl. I don’t know whatever happened to those 45s, they were probably thrown out but there was probably some stuff worth some money in there, but I digress. Hidden in that pile of 45s was none other than Dion’s great song, “The Wanderer.” I don’t remember if dad had “Run Around Sue” but I have a feeling he did. But the song I just fell in love with was “The Wanderer.” I was just a kid but the lyrics just grabbed me, “I’m the type of guy who’ll never settle down, where pretty girls are, you know that I’m around.” Perhaps it was foreshadowing of how I was to live my 20s and early 30s…I should probably have worked that out with a therapist. I mean, I hadn’t even hit puberty and I was dancing around lip-synching “they call me the wanderer, yeah the wanderer, I roam around, around, around.” Emotional gypsies, apply here. Years later as adults my brother bought me that 45 for a birthday present. He had to listen to it every time I did, it was his record player so he knew how much I loved it.

Other than that single my brother bought me, which was placed in the shelves up by my albums, I forgot all about Dion. If asked about him I’d probably have guessed after his career cooled off he’d died of booze and drugs. Or moved back to the Bronx and become an electrician or a contractor or something. Maybe he had some kids and shows up at weddings and nostalgia shows and stuff like that. I figured if alive he probably lived in Florida where he yelled at kids for getting in his yard. I was completely unaware that he’d kept recording and performing music. It wasn’t until approximately four years ago that I rediscovered he was even alive when he released his haunting duet with Paul Simon, “New  York Is My Home.” I figured it was a one-off and never discovered there was an entire album by that name.

A few months ago I started to see advertisements and social media stuff about his upcoming album, Blues With Friends. It’s a guest-star laden album with a who’s who of guitarists and artists joining him. That’s probably why it’s getting the press it does which is great but it’s too bad that as I discovered, starting in 2000, he’s released a string of really great albums, mostly centered on the blues that should have garnered more attention. I really like 2011’s Tank Full of Blues. Its exactly as advertised, laid back blues. When I finally went back and listened to the entire album New York Is My Home I discovered another fabulous album. Hell, I even dug Bronx In Blue where it’s blues stripped down to just acoustic guitar and Dion’s voice, the way Muddy Waters used to play in the early days. I recommend perusing his catalog from Deja Nu forward. Although I will admit his propensity to be photographed w/ a beret on and a guitar in his hand can confuse you as to which album you’re listening to.

As I said this is a guest star laden LP. Usually those can really lack consistency. The guest artists styles tend to overwhelm the guy whose album it is. That’s not the case with Blues With Friends. There’s a couple of reasons this album hangs together so well. First and foremost, is Dion’s voice. He’s in his usual fine vocal form here… the guy has lost nothing vocally. And for the most part Dion is the only one who sings on the record. Since these tracks mostly aren’t duets, the continuity is there. Also, when you stay in the genre of blues you can play with a lot of different people and still maintain a consistent sound throughout.

There’s a ton to like on this record. “Blues Comin’ Down” with Bonamassa kicks things off and it’s great. It has a very tasty guitar solo. I really love the track with Brian Setzer on guitar, “Uptown Number Seven,” it just chugs along like a train and you know how I love train songs, “Playlist: The B&V 50 Favorite Songs About Trains – “that lonesome whistle blows…”). The guy who I’d never heard of who may have my favorite moment on the record is Sonny Landreth the “slydeco” (slide guitar played in the zydeco style) guitar wizard on “I Got the Gun.” Dion vibes on his energy. Dion and Samantha Fish tear the roof off the joint on the most upbeat track here, “What If I Told You.” “Way Down (I Won’t Cry No More)” with Steve Van Zandt on lead guitar is a treat. Van Zandt does so many things it’s easy to forget what a great guitarist he is. Dion conjures additional great moments with John Hammond and Billy Gibbons.

It’s not all electric blues. He does change it up a bit. There’s another duet with Paul Simon that I just loved, “Song For Sam Cooke.” I love Sam and this is a beautiful tribute song, complete with the “Chain Gang” backing vocals. Simon and Dion sing so well together they should form a duo. They could call it Simon and Dion-funkel, they’d make a fortune. “I Got Nothin'” finds Dion duetting with Van Morrison and I love that track too. Van sounds so much more laid back on this track than on his own stuff. Joe Louis Walker plays the lead on that track and it’s just pure blues heaven. “Told You Once In August” is a stripped down acoustic blues number with John Hammond on guitar with Rory Block on a harmony vocal, anther great track. “Hymn To Him” has Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa. Springsteen plays acoustic but Scialfa steals the show with her wordless backing vocals. She compliments Dion so well. The track almost has a religious vibe…hence the “Hymn” in the title.

As I’ve confessed before the blues are my Alpha and my Omega. All of the great rock and roll that I love is founded upon the roots of the blues. To see an artist with Dion’s history take up the blues and record yet another in a great string of albums just reaffirms my faith in the blues. Dion has always been a great vocalist. Everyone needs to check this disc out. It’s perfect for all you wanderers out there.

Cheers. Take care of each other!

 

 

Artist Lookback: The (Original) Jeff Beck Group – Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart & Ronnie Wood

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Image of the Jeff Beck Group (Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood, Mickey Waller & Rod Stewart) taken from the internet and likely copyrighted. Credited to Past Daily

I saw the other day that Rod Stewart’s new album, Blood Red Roses hit number one in the UK. Congrats Rod… While I found his new album mostly un-listenable, I’m still a huge Rod fan. I’ve been on Stewart’s bandwagon since his early Mercury Records days and Truth be told, even before that. I’m still holding out for a Faces reunion and two of them are gone. For years I hoped Rod would start writing original music again and no one was happier than I was when he finally did so on his 2013 album, Time. He followed that up with 2015’s Another Country (Review: Rod Stewart “Another Country” – We Should All Be This Happy) before releasing this new disc last month. Alas, each album has been a case of diminishing returns. I will say it’s all still better than those awful American Songbook albums. Those records should have been entitled, Songs for Soccer Moms. His new record follows a disturbing trend for Rod… he seems to just turn over his stuff to whoever the producer is and lets them do what they want with the music in an attempt to sound modern. Strip away the gloss and there might be something decent there.

Rod’s other big problem is his choice of collaborators. He’s writing songs again, but he’s chosen to write them with a keyboardist, Kevin Savigar. I have nothing against Mr. Savigar, but Rod always writes better stuff when he’s collaborating with someone on guitar. Whether he’s going folky with an acoustic or bluesy with an electric, the guitar just seems to bring out the best in Rod, like a shot of adrenaline. He wrote most of his best stuff with Ronnie Wood during those aforementioned Faces and Mercury days. Even in the 80s he had guitarists like Jim Cregan or Gary Grainger to write songs with. Of course, Rod’s other great guitar partner was the man who broke Stewart’s career wide open, none other than Mr. Jeff Beck. Before The Jeff Beck Group Stewart was a traveling troubadour, bouncing from band to band in groups like Steampacket.

I posted once about John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the trio of great guitarists that came out of that band, Artist Lookback – John Mayall’s Blues Breakers: The Guitar Hero Trilogy 1966-1967. To find a band, outside of the Allman Brothers Band, with that much guitar star power, one has only to look to the Yardbirds. The Yardbirds started with Eric Clapton on guitar, only he was such a “blues purist,” he split the band when they moved to what he deemed a more “pop” sound. Clapton went on to soar to greater heights, first with John Mayall, then Cream, and as a solo artist. The Yardbirds ended their run with none other than Jimmy Page on lead guitar. Obviously, Page went on to “King of the World” status in Led Zeppelin. When the Yardbirds broke up, Page even ended up with the legal rights to the name. Zeppelin was almost called the New Yardbirds. In between Clapton and Page, the bridge between if you will, was a guy who never reached the commercial heights of the other Yardbirds’ guitar gods, Jeff Beck. The guy can flat out play. Sadly, as he said at the Yardbirds’ Rock And Roll Hall of Fame Induction, “They fired me, I don’t even know why I’m here?”

I’ve never understood why Beck wasn’t more commercially successful. His guitar prowess was such that Jimi Hendrix was a fan. High praise, indeed. In the 70s, having finally given up on vocalists, he recorded two instrumental, jazz fusion-y albums, Blow By Blow and Wired that both eventually went platinum. Both albums had George Martin in the producer’s chair. Stevie Wonder wrote “Superstition” for inclusion on Blow By Blow. I know that Beck can be… let’s call it “mercurial.” His temper and foul moods may be what kept him out of the limelight. He and Rod were trying to collaborate on an album four or five years ago but they couldn’t come to terms, which is a shame. Jeff Beck not only sort of discovered Rod, he resurrected his flagging career in the 80s when the two cut “People Get Ready.” The popularity of that track shook Stewart out of his pop slumber. When they were trying to collaborate Beck complained that Rod only wanted to sing the blues, and I’m thinking, “fuck yes!” Jeff didn’t want to play the blues, but oh, what an album that might have been. So last year, of course, Beck guested on Van Morrison’s Roll With The Punches album which was basically a blues record (LP Review: Van Morrison, ‘Roll With The Punches,’ A Laid-Back Blues Party). I guess Jeff can still play the blues but only when wants to.

Having been terminated by the Yardbirds, in early 1967 Jeff Beck formed the original Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart on vocals, future Faces and Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood on rhythm guitar and a revolving door of bassists and drummers. Eventually Ronnie Wood would move to bass and Rod would recruit his buddy from Steampacket Mickey Waller to play drums. That was as close as they’d come to a stable line up. Waller was eventually replaced by Tony Newman. I think even drummer Aynsley Dunbar was in this band at one point because lets face it, Aynsley was in every 60s band and several 70s bands. Beck had signed on with manager Mickie Most who was only focused on Jeff Beck as a solo artist. As the guitarist once remarked, “I understand why Rod left, he was being treated like the hired help.” Alas, that’s how Most and Beck himself treated the rest of the band. Wood was fired and rehired several times. In the end keyboardist Nicky Hopkins passed on the chance to join Zeppelin and joined The Jeff Beck Group as a full time member.

With all that turmoil and mismanagement the group did suffer. Jeff famously decided not to play Woodstock, something he has always said he regretted. I can’t imagine what an appearance at the iconic festival would have done for these guys. They toured constantly which led to their other great problem – they didn’t take any time off from the road to actually write original material. In the liner notes of their second and final album, Beck-ola Beck even cops to it, when he says “It’s hard to come up with anything truly original.” While the band wasn’t meant to last, they were hugely influential. Jimmy Page was watching what Beck did, pairing a strong guitarist who would bring the lads into the concerts with a charismatic lead singer who would bring the ladies in. He quietly recruited Robert Plant to recreate the model, to much greater success. The original Jeff Beck Group was the real blueprint for many of the 4-piece heavy blues/blues rock bands to follow. They left behind, in their brief time together, two great albums that every rock fan should own…

Truth (1968)

This is one of the truly seminal albums of the blues rock movement. It’s influence can be felt to this day in bands like Greta Van Fleet. The album opens with an old Yardbirds’ track, “Shapes of Things” and Beck’s guitar playing makes this version the definitive one. There are two towering blues covers on this record, “Ain’t Superstitious,” the old Howlin Wolf track, (and its as epic as the format ever got) and Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me.” Jimmy Page, in a bit of cheek, had Zeppelin on their first album cover “You Shook Me,” which reportedly made Beck weep when he first heard it. Competition is good for the soul. Of the originals on this album, “Blues Deluxe” is probably my favorite. It lives up to the title and is the best blues song Rod ever sang. “Rock My Plimsoul” was a reworking of a B.B. King song but is another great bluesy rave up. It sounds like Beck is torturing his guitar here and I mean that in a good way. Mixed with Rod’s vocals, and Woody/Waller’s solid bottom, this album is perfect. So racked for material were these guys, they covered “Old Man River” with Keith Moon (unnamed) on timpani. This was basically the band’s live set, recorded in the studio. I wish somebody had recorded these guys live in concert…but I digress. When I re-purchased this album on CD, I found the great bonus track, the bluesy, “I’ve Been Drinking Again,” which obviously, we love here at B&V loved.

Beck-Ola (1969)

The wheels were already starting to come off. The constant touring, illness and band infighting was taking it’s toll. If they’d just slowed down a bit from the road and taken more time to write original stuff. This album gets overlooked and criticized for that very reason, not enough new stuff, but it’s still a great blues rock album. There are two (and probably 1 too many) Elvis covers here, the opener “All Shook Up,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” While that shows the lack of newly written stuff, they’re still kick ass songs. Beck correctly described Rod as being on “vocals extraordinaire.” Keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, now a full time member, brought the beautiful, piano driven “Girl From Mill Valley.” “Spanish Boots” another original, is a rocker. Rod sings over Hopkins insistent piano line, while Beck’s guitar dive bombs through. The solo is mind blowing. “Plynth (Water Down the Drain) which Ronnie and Rod would steal later for their first record with the Faces, is as heavy as anything these guys recorded. It’s almost heavy metal. Stewart’s vocal verges on unhinged. The time changes Beck goes through thrill me even now. “Hangman’s Blues” is heavy blues goodness. The album times in at just over thirty minutes and I was puzzled when I bought this album (again) on CD, to find some great bonus stuff that could have been easily added to side two. The two bonus tracks, “Sweet Little Angel,” a great B.B. King cover and “Throw Down A Line” by Hank Marvin were both purportedly recorded during a jam. If this is the sound of a band jamming, they should have jammed more. While not as towering as Truth, this is still a must have.

Sadly, after ditching Woodstock, Beck, who was as fond as Rod was of fast cars, was injured when he wrecked his sports car. While Jeff was recovering, Rod recorded his folk-rock debut, The Rod Stewart Album (or in the UK, An Old Raincoat Will Never Let You Down) with Ronnie Wood on guitar and Mickey Waller on drums. It wasn’t long before Rod had joined Ronnie in the Faces. Beck formed a second version of the Jeff Beck Group but for me at least, he never recaptured the magic of this original line-up. Pour something strong and give these two records a listen.