We think of celebrity as a modern kind of cage, but fame has always been a challenge. Dion, born Dion DiMucci, had two huge hit songs in the early 1960s, “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” but as that decade’s music changed all around him, the larger commercial audience saw him as the vestige of another era, preventing Dion, all of 25 when the British Invasion hit America’s shores, from reimagining his persona or his music. So Blues with Friends a collaboration with a ton of blues and blues rock stars, is a second chance for Dion that has some surprisingly interesting moments.
While Dion’s music, especially the early material, always seemed more doo wop inspired than blues driven, he did cut some blues covers in the mid-1960s that weren’t hits. So here he has a chance to see how things might have turned out if those blues singles found an audience over half a century ago.
Dion, to his credit, seems to understand that no matter how much he personally loves the blues, it’s not a genre associated with him, so he stacks the album with top-notch guests. He also co-wrote all of the album’s songs himself, another smart move, as it allows him to work with blues-influenced songs, without pushing too far out of his, or the audience’s, comfort zone. I was skeptical of the concept, but Dion, who co-produced the album and plays guitar on it, executed the album very intelligently.
While there are some high-energy tracks, Dion is at his best on the lower-key ones. “My Baby Loves to Boogie,” with John Hammond Jr., is laid back, a good fit for Dion’s weary voice, which works in a bit of a talking blues style. Hammond shows off some high-octane harp work while Dion unleashes some shockingly tasty blues guitar. It’s a fun track that sounds like it could be a standard. And there’s also a comfortable warmth between Dion and Hammond that comes across the song.
Some of the tracks feel more integrated with their guests. “Can’t Start Over Again,” featuring Jeff Beck on guitar, is almost country. The ballad isn’t super bluesy, but Dion nails an honest vocal and Beck is always a treat, here reining in his playing a bit for the sake of a simple-yet-pretty song. “I Got the Cure” features Sonny Landreth on an uptown blues, another clever choice, as Landreth’s down-home, other-worldly slide isn’t something you necessarily expect on a horn-driven track like this.
Dion has other big-name collaborators here. Bruce Springsteen plays guitar behind Dion and Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, on “Hymn to Him,” from Dion’s 1987 gospel album. He’s joined on other tracks by Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Samantha Fish, and Billy Gibbons. It’s an eclectic group but the parade of different guests keeps the album interesting. The underlying album concept is a bit of a gimmick, but Dion makes it a high-quality, enjoyable one.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– My Baby Loves to Boogie
– Can’t Start Over Again
– I Got the Cure
– Hymn to Him
The Big Hit
– Hymn to Him
Review by Steven Ovadia