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Dion - Blues With Friends: a fabulous album from a singular treasure

Dion returns in some style on Joe Bonamassa’s label, with all-star backing on Blues With Friends

Dion: Blues With Friends
(Image: © KTBA Records)

Bona fide rock legends are pretty rare these days. Now in his 80th year, Dion DiMucci is one of the last men standing from the golden age of rock’n’roll, a creative force for whom simply being a survivor isn’t enough. Instead he’s continued to progress as the millennium has worn on, releasing a series of blues-rooted albums that bear little resemblance to the records that made him famous back in the late 1950s.

Aside from its starry cast, the most remarkable feature of Blues With Friends is Dion’s voice. Suitably weathered by age and experience, it’s hardly gathered rust and has retained its lustrous power and soulful richness. Co-producer/multi-instrumentalist Wayne Hood wisely pins that voice to the centre of this fabulous record, with A-listers very much in supporting roles. 

Typifying this approach is Jeff Beck, whose contribution to Can’t Start Over Again, a done-me-wrong ballad that sounds like a lost gem from James Carr, is the height of judicious elegance. Or maybe Bruce Springsteen, who plays a discreet acoustic guitar solo on Hymn To Him.

As with a handful of songs on the album, Hymn To Him is partly embedded in Dion’s past. It dates from his 80s gospel period, a Godly pledge of devotion that he was never quite happy with. 

Patti Scialfa’s celestial vocal harmony finally brings the elevation it needs. Similarly, the original Kickin’ Child was issued in 1965, when Dion’s bosses at Columbia Records were actively discouraging him from pursuing rock’n’roll. The revamped model, with Joe Menza adding twangy blues licks, spits and crackles like the wild protagonist it describes.

The most moving moment is on the folk-ish Song For Sam Cooke (Here In America), on which Dion recalls touring the American South with the late soul great in 1962, where he witnessed enmity and racism up close. ‘There’s so much I didn’t know, about the way that life could go,” he rues, echoed by the gentle strains of Paul Simon.

For the most part, though, Blues With Friends is exuberant and coltish, be it the frisky Blues Comin’ On (with Joe Bonamassa), a redemptive Bam Bang Boom (with Billy Gibbons) or the bruising Chicago thump of Way Down (I Won’t Cry No More), enlivened by Steve Van Zandt.

Van Morrison, Brian Setzer, Samantha Fish and Joe Louis Walker are also among his guests, while Bob Dylan takes care of writing the sleeve notes. All of which shores up the notion of Dion as a truly singular treasure.