When Dion DiMucci, one of the early great rock & roll stars, knocked out Bronx in Blue in 2005, it caused a rumbling stir among critics, if no one else. To be honest, no one expected much -- not even Dion, who hadn't made music for the masses since 1968 with his last big hit, "Abraham, Martin and John." He nailed down a few hip records in the early '70s and has made plenty since, but American audiences don't get to hear them for all the usual reasons. If the biz wasn't itself, his turn of the century classic, Déjà Nu, would have sold a million or two. Bronx in Blue was a killer blues record. Yeah, a blues record. It was on this tiny little label with inadequate distribution, and whatever...you know the story. But if you were lucky enough to hear that disc, you could hear the same Dion who issued those hip blues records for Columbia in the mid-'60s, produced by Tom Wilson. The years melted away and Dion's unique take on the blues via the street corners, record shops, and alleyways of the Bronx came pouring through the speakers like some message from another world. For anyone cynical enough to think it improper for Dion to title this record Son of Skip James, quit reading right now; you won't get it at all. DiMucci played the Newport festivals and was as deeply under the sway of James, John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Muddy Waters as Dylan, the Band, Fred Neil, John Fahey, Tom Rush, and the like. And he could sing that music with the same open, unselfconscious freedom and abandon as the masters. Dion knew the blues, and a trip through his autobiography would convince almost anyone.
Which brings listeners to this hip set, released on Verve Forecast. Dion being back with a major has done the opposite of what would be expected. This isn't some nostalgia record. It's a tightrope walker. If anything, with the stakes increased, it's made him more raw, immediate, and utterly full of life, spunk, grit, and truth than ever; he's as hungry for the meaning in the music and as cockily self-assured as "the Wanderer" who laid "Ruby Baby" down nearly 50 years ago. DiMucci's voice is a thing of wonder; he has lost none of his vitality and none of his range, and his control over it is simply amazing. He also plays a pretty mean guitar. He didn't need any big-name producer or all-star band, either. Dion produced Son of Skip James himself, plays acoustic guitar and harmonica, and sings his rear off. Rick Krive accompanies him on piano on a few tracks, and Bob Guertin is on percussion and Hammond B-3 on others. That's it. The program consists of a number of classic blues tunes and some that should be considered that way. For starters, it opens with a killer reading of Chuck Berry's "Nadine"; in it you can hear unmistakably that -- in a great singer's voice -- what separates the blues from rock & roll is invisible. Dion's covers of Willie Dixon's "My Babe" and "Hoochie Coochie Man," Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man Blues," Sleepy John Estes' "Drop Down Mama," Robert Johnson's "Preachin' Blues" and "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day," and yeah, Skip James' "Devil Got My Woman" are deeply personal, swaggering, and the real thing: original. He's not singing these songs because they are classics, but because he hears something in them calling his name. He's had plenty of time to hear those sounds, to take them into himself and now to spit them back out through his own experience. There isn't a note here that's tired, clichéd, or inauthentic.
One piece of evidence that this is the truth is that he's also written a few tunes here that hold water next to these towering monoliths of the American music canon. Check "The Thunderer," a rambling bluesy folk tune with Rhodes piano and spare percussion, where Dion sings about St. Jerome (an early translator of the Bible as a deeply conflicted, sexist, prejudicial, and blessed if contradictory madman -- "God's crotchety scholar"). Dion's conclusion is not unlike those of the bluesmen before him: "...It takes all kinds to make it to heaven...love without truth is just sentimental/Truth without love is sterile...." This isn't Dion preaching the gospel, but affirming the loopy sense of inconsistency that humans walk the earth with, and affirming his belief in a God that not only understands this but celebrates it. He offers a little tale about Dylan performing "Blowin' in the Wind," at the 1997 World Eucharistic Conference, which will strike some as preachy, as will the title track. So, if religion offends you -- particularly Christian religion -- this might put you off a bit, but too bad. The title track spells out a confident smiling conviction that the tough-guy bravado he showed on Saturday night is no act: as he walks to church on Sunday morning he lays it out straight to the guy across the street selling wolf tickets and laughing at him: "I'm a lover not a fighter/But I could kick your ass." Uh-huh. Anybody who would be so audacious as to lay that tune down before the Holy Grail of the blues in Johnson's "Preachin' Blues," followed by "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" and the set-closing "Devil Got My Woman," has got a pair. In other words, Dion's either crazy or he knows something of what he's singing. He knows that the other side of Saturday night is Sunday morning. To be honest, it wouldn't matter if he were singing The Anarchist Cookbook (although it might endear him to a few more politically correct types); he'd still sing like a lonesome midnight angel wailing in front of a burning trash can on some trash-strewn street corner. Just before 2007 slips away, Dion strolls right back in the front door like he's never been gone, with one of the best records of the year under his arm.