Dion Sings ‘Blues with Friends’: Review

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If you’re surprised to see a blues album from Dion, you haven’t been paying attention. Yes, he is primarily known for his wonderful early-rock-era records with and without the Belmonts, but even in those days he delivered a smattering of blues tracks. And since then, Dion has periodically dipped into a blues bag for albums such as Bronx in Blue (2006), Son of Skip James (2007) and Tank Full of Blues (2011).

As he points out in the booklet that accompanies the new Blues with Friends, the genre has “been at the heart of my music since the early 1960s. I was covering Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed in my early years at Columbia—much to the dismay of my corporate masters—and my own ‘The Wanderer’ is a twelve-bar blues song.”

Listen to “Can’t Start Over Again,” featuring Jeff Beck

While several of Dion’s previous albums have featured solo acoustic covers of some of the genre’s classic tunes, Blues with Friends incorporates more rock flavoring. Moreover, all of its tracks are Dion originals (most of them cowritten with book author Mike Aquilina). And as the album title indicates, an assortment of friends join Dion on this album, among them such luminaries as Jeff Beck, Van Morrison, Steve Van Zandt, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa.

Listen to “Hymn to Him,” with Bruce Springsteen on guitar and Patti Scialfa on vocals

He even enlisted Bob Dylan to pen some of the liner notes. “When you have a voice as deep and wide as Dion’s,” writes Dylan, “that voice can take you all the way around the world and then all the way back home to the blues.”

There’s plenty here to justify that tribute, including the lively “Uptown Number 7,” which features rhythm and lead guitar by Brian Setzer; “Can’t Start Over Again,” a country blues tune that Dion suggests was influenced by Hank Williams; and “My Baby Loves to Boogie,” with John Hammond on harmonica.

Listen to “Uptown Number 7” with Brian Setzer

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The most affecting track, though, is the pop-flavored “Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America),” which contains social commentary that makes it redolent of Dion’s 1968 top-five hit, “Abraham, Martin & John.” In this deeply personal, violin-spiced song, which the singer says he wrote a long time ago, he recalls touring with Cooke in 1962 and laments not paying enough attention back then to the fact that, for example, he could stay in hotels that wouldn’t admit Cooke because of his race. “You were the star standing in the light,” Dion sings. “That won you nothing on a city street at night.”

Watch the video for “Song to Sam Cooke (Here in America),” featuring Paul Simon

The only thing about this album that might disappoint is the lack of vocal duets with some of the great singers who collaborate with Dion. When you first eye the list of accompanists, you’ll likely be excited by the prospect of hearing him trade choruses with many of them. He does share lead vocals with Morrison, but Springsteen and Van Zandt provide only guitar work; and Scialfa and Simon contribute relatively minor background vocal parts.

Listen to the track featuring Van Morrison and Joe Louis Walker, “I Got Nothin'”

This is just a quibble, however. For more than 60 years now, Dion has been making excellent albums. This is one of them.

Listen to “Bam Bang Zoom,” featuring Billy Gibbons

Dion turned 81 on July 18, 2020.

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