This star-studded collection shows how varied the blues can be and showcases some wonderful playing.  

Blues with Friends
Label: Keep The Blues Alive
Time: 14 tracks / 61 mins

Who else can you think of, who was in the vanguard of rock and roll in the ‘50s and is still making relevant music today and winning plaudits?

Exactly. Dion DiMucci is virtually unique. Never mind his signature tune “The Wanderer;” he has now made five blues albums over the last 15 years (all reviewed here on Tollbooth) which have garnered critical acclaim, one being Grammy nominated.

On this release, the honour comes from the status of the stars involved: Bob Dylan wrote the liner notes and Dion is joined by Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison, as well as today’s leading blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa (on whose Keep The Blues Alive non-profit label this is released).

As you’d expect with such names, while the styles and tempos changes throughout his album, the quality is consistent and producer Wayne Hood ensures that the collection enjoys a full, rich tone along with some nuanced textures deep in the mix. For example, on the Paul Simon track he adds backing vocals that might remind you a bit of Ladysmith Black Mambazo; on “I Got Nothin’,” there is some barely-audible organ adding warmth; and on the wonderful and world-weary “Can’t Start Over Again,” strings sit so quietly that they are barely noticeable, but still do their job. It is a track based on acoustic guitar, so that the lead from one of the world’s best guitarists, Jeff Beck, can shine on licks and solo. He plays with remarkable restraint, but his too-short solo is still laden with pathos as the song captures how love lost can be a knock-out blow. 

Dion himself is a superb guitarist, whether electric or acoustic, but he is in fine company throughout: Bonamassa gets to solo with both feeling and technique on the barnstorming opener and Sonny Landreth’s electric slide licks do the same on “I Got the Cure” – another track that shows just how perfectly Hood can balance the sound as he adds some judicious organ and brass.

While most of the guests are guitarists, Van Morrison almost seamlessly trades vocal lines with DiMucci on the wonderful "I Got Nothin'", which has a remarkably similar feel to much of Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, thanks to a chugging rhythm and some casual electric piano. John Hammond decorates the delicious shuffle “My Baby Loves to Boogie” with some wonderfully expressive harmonica playing. The title shows that blues can so easily be shallow and feel good, and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons playing “Bam Bang Boom” seems to tell the same story, but generally, Dion is putting some depth into these tracks. The latter is about meeting his wife for the first time and he writes, “I wanted an album of songs that were strong and memorable and told stories that were worth telling.”

There is not a bad track on the album, but particular highlights include the touching acoustic personal tribute "Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America)" with Paul Simon, which is laced with fiddle and hardly a blues song; and the atmospheric “Stumbling Blues,” where Jimmy Vivino’s warm tenor sax trades lines with DiMucci’s own ageless Bronx vocal, which takes on a new gruffer depth in this track. Another standout is “Told You Once in August” (with John Hammond and Rory Block each on acoustic slide guitar, where he aims for a “sound that reminded me of those old backwoods Appalachian blues recordings.”

As with recent albums, he has written a few tracks that feature his faith. Here, his suitably retro song with Stray Cat Brian Setzer “Uptown No. 7” uses that old gospel/blues image of the train to heaven to convey progressing in the spiritual life and getting past temptations. On the Sam Cooke song, he mentions that “A preacher’s kid you’ll always be, singing the truth to set us free.” But it’s invitational closing work "Hymn to Him" with Springsteen – the other track that isn’t really blues – that really puts God centre-stage.   
“Come to Him through the darkness
Come to Him through the rain
Walk with him from misfortune
Walk with him from the pain
He's the light of salvation
He's the head that’s never bowed
He's the first step of wisdom
He's the sun through the clouds
Walk with him.”

On a recent release, where he had another manifesto song at the end, I wondered whether it would be a fitting swansong. The rate at which he keeps going and getting better, stopping – or even slowing down – seems to be the last thing on his mind. He’s crafting it to the last. Yesterday’s man? Absolutely no way.

Derek Walker