It’s a commonplace to assert that Dion DiMucci is one of the giants of rock and roll, but what is lesser known is his talent for and his devotion to the blues. His album Tank Full of Blues is the third in a trilogy of blues masterpieces he has released in the past decade, this at an age when most of his contemporaries have long since done their best work. Dion still has all the vocal chops he ever had, which are considerable and a revelation to those who might think a great singer can’t possibly last 50 or 60 years without losing quality and intensity. The man is blessed with an intoxicatingly passionate and authentic voice. The rest of it, his superb guitar playing, his terrific songwriting, and his ability to create: well, all of that is testament to his capacity for work. He turned 76 a couple of weeks ago and he is still a force of nature.
I don’t use the word “testament’ lightly either. Dion is a profoundly religious man, one who has miraculously survived fame, drugs, and life on the road. If there’s anyone who has a right to sing the blues, it’s this man from the Bronx, who by the way has never forgotten where he came from and what it meant to grow up poor on the streets.
Growing up in a cheap New York apartment with a father whose sole talent was unemployment and a somewhat overbearing mother with a penchant for argument, Dion took refuge in the music of Hank Williams and Jimmy Reed. Later on, despite receiving a multi-million dollar contract from Columbia Records, he turned away from pop/rock stardom and embraced the blues. Columbia didn’t know what the hell to do with him; they’d brought him in to replicate his success with songs like “Runaround Sue”, “Sandy”, “Little Diane” and “The Wanderer”, and here he was at Columbia hanging out with Bob Dylan and John Hammond. The blues was in him, down deep, and through various incarnations of pop singer, folkie, and gospel artist, Dion gained the courage to give up a longstanding heroin habit and sing what he truly loved – the blues. With his Grammy-nominated 2006 album “Bronx in Blue” and the follow-up in 2007 “Son of Skip James” Dion recreated himself. And he’d become one hell of a fine blues guitarist.
All that said, Tank Full of Blues pulls out all the stops in ways that Dion himself couldn’t have imagined a few years ago. He plays all the guitars all the album, and is supported by bass and drums. His guitar work is blistering, smouldering, hypnotic and rhythmic, just like his heroes Jimmy Reed and Robert Johnson, His singing is passionate and desperate, matching some of his early work such as “Born To Cry” and “Gonna Make It Alone” and “Spoonful” and “Drip Drop”. In retrospect his two previous blues albums were laid-back, smooth and quiet, probably because of the predominance of Dion’s beloved acoustic Martin guitar. In Tank Full of Blues he’s as electrified, snarly, gnarly and bluesy as they come, particularly in “Two Train”, “I’m Ready To Go” and “You Got Me Crying”, three of the strongest tracks on the record. Vocals? – well, there is no hint of a 71 year old man on this record. Guys half Dion’s age would kill for his voice.
Then there’s the unexpected finale, entitled “Bronx Poem”, in which Dion reveals his life, his passions, his deeds and misdeeds in a brilliantly rhymed, wonderfully constructed and entirely natural-sounding exposition that every aspiring rapper/poet/musician/singer should hear. I’m not ashamed to say it brought tears to my eyes.
Watch: “Tank Full of Blues”
Watch: “The Wanderer Talks Truth”