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!

 

 

Concert Review: Joe Bonamassa & The 4 Horsemen of the Salinapocalypse Slight Return

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*image shamelessly stolen from the Internet

My apologies to my readers, that I haven’t been posting as much or as regularly lately. I was on vacation with the Rock Chick in the Dominican Republic all of last week. I hadn’t been on a vacation in 2 years and finally the Rock Chick laid down the law… the next thing I knew I was soaked in rum and sun screen. I will say the DR is beautiful and the people are warm and welcoming. If anything goes astray with the Rock Chick my next wife will certainly be Dominican… The weeks prior to my vacation my Corporate Overlords had me traveling all around the U.S. from Herndon, VA to San Francisco to Salt Lake City… the grind of the road, such is life. As a result, I haven’t had much time to devote to BourbonAndVinyl. And let’s admit it, it’s been a shitty year for music thus far in 2017.

As luck would have it, Joe Bonamassa brought his band to Kansas City last night. Let me be the first to say, WOW. I have converted to the church of Bonamassa.

It was my buddy Stormin’ who first turned me on to Bonamassa. Stormin’ and our mutual friend Matthew got heavily into the blues a number of years ago. Matthew tried to turn me onto Tab Benoit (sp?). He was ok… but then Storm told me to buy the Bonamassa album, ‘The Ballad of John Henry.’ I must say, Joe clicked for me a lot more so than Tab did. The last time I was in Denver, Storm played me another Bonamassa album, whose title escapes me and I was again blown away by Bonamassa’s virtuoso playing. Then I saw him on VH1 on a special from Red Rocks playing Muddy Waters tunes. That’s when I knew I was a fan. If you haven’t seen that concert film, I highly recommend it.

It was a few months ago, my friend Drummer Blake reached out and said, “Let’s go to Bonamassa.” I jumped at the chance. Once again, a little over year later, I found myself nursing a martini in the Drum Room awaiting the Four Horsemen… Although I must admit it was The Four Horsemen of the Salinapocalypse – Slight Return, as not all 4 of them were present last night. There were six of us in total and we were drinking like escaped convicts before the show, which is always good concert prep. I always ask myself before a show, “What would Hendrix do?” It was truly great to be in the presence of the Salinapocalypse again. I must say, one of the Horsemen, Spalding (name obscured to protect the guilty) is a rather finicky food guy… even ordering drinks was an ordeal. As a result of all that we didn’t skip out of the Drum room until 15 minutes prior to the show.

The line to get into the beautiful Midland Theater – and not enough can be said about what a beautiful, old theater the Midland is – was around the block. Apparently the draconian security measures to get in the theater were causing unusual delays. If we have to stand out in the cold for 45 minutes to see the blues, the terrorists have already won, my friends. Instead of being 15 minutes early and being in our seats for the start of the show, to my surprise Bonmassa started promptly at 8pm. We missed the first 20 minutes of the show, standing in the cold waiting to get through the fucking metal detectors. A couple of us peeled off and ducked into a bar to miss the frenzy. I would have thought a stage hand would have leaned into the dressing room and told Joe, “Say man, you might wanna give it 30 minutes…” Que sera, que sera.

I quickly rushed through the darkened and packed theater to my seat in the 14th row… my thanks to the niece of one of the Salinapocalypse for getting us great seats… and spotted Joe on stage. I was taken aback by how much he looks like Agent Smith from the Matrix movies… I was ready for him to say, “What do you want to hear next Mr. Anderson…” He had a great backing band that included Anton Fig of Letterman fame on drums and Reese Wynans from Double Trouble on keyboards. He had a small (2) horn section, and 2 back up singers from Australia who moved continuously though the show, giving the players a nice visual counterpoint.

And what a band they were. As Joe himself said, these guys were nominated for a Grammy. They were tight and amazing all night. I loved the constant interplay between the different instruments all night long. And what can I say about Joe’s guitar playing. The man is truly one of the best I’ve seen. He melted our faces off, in a good way. Drummer Blake claims he is the absolute best guitarist out there. I’m not sure I’m ready to say that yet, but the fact that Bonamassa played Clapton’s “Pretending” and just owned it, goes a long way toward making his case. They did a great version of “Never Make Your Move Too Soon,” which I’ve always associated with B.B. King and it was scorching. The most impressive moment for me, personally, was a cover of Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times.” It takes some stones for a guitar player to rip through Clapton, B.B., and Jimmy Page covers and hold his own.

The guitar solo’ing was simply other worldly. Joe can bend a note around a corner. And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the plethora of beautiful guitars the guy played, although even I have to admit the paisley one was funny looking. At one point after shredding through a guitar solo, Joe brought it way down and was quietly playing some slow, bendy notes, and someone in the crowd yelled, “We love you Joe!” It was a great moment. The rapport he has with his audience and their allegiance called to mind the crowd on B.B. King’s seminal live LP “Live at the Regal.” There is a genuine bond there you don’t see as much these days. The guy just killed it on guitar and he was able to do that for 2 and half hours… Just a fantastic show. I highly recommend anybody near a venue he’s playing at, get out to see him as this tour is winding down…

After the show, the Salinapocalypse and I slipped into a tavern across the street from the show to debrief. Everybody was impressed with the band. The conversation eventually turned toward the subject of whether Rock was dead. The concern is that there aren’t enough young kids out there playing the guitar, or learning any instruments. It’s all electronics now, DJs and rappers. I was moved at how much genuine concern and, yes, love of rock and roll was being expressed at that table. If you’re out there and you’re young, there’s still time. Pick up and instrument and as Ronnie Lane’s dad used to say, “then you’ll always have a friend.”

I’m not sure what Rock And Roll Fate brought me into the company of the Salinapocalypse crowd, but I can say, I’m sure glad it did. Without Drummer Blake I’d have missed the Joe Bonamassa show and that would have been missing out on something really special.

Until next time, Cheers!