What is not generally known about Dion is how good a blues guitarist he is. While his instrumental skills are a revelation on this record, equally astounding is how dramatically he reinvented himself from being one of the great pop singers to being perhaps the best white blues singer alive. Check out his recent albums ‘Bronx in Blue’ and ‘Son of Skip James’ once you get on the Dion blues train. Here though is where to start – with this Columbia recording long forgotten, but now available in both vinyl and digital formats.
It’s replete with sundry blues interpretations; the rambling Brownie McGhee workout called “Southern Train” and an especially glorious, atmospheric rendering of Woody Guthrie’s “900 Miles” are mesmerising and authoritative; a slow-burning 1963 piano arrangement of “Baby Please Don’t Go” flashes bit of Ray Charles élan; “Seventh Son,” borrowed from Mose Allison’s arrangement, sounds like the apocalypse, withering guitar wreckage pushing a doomsday vocal.
Yet as convincing as these performances are, it’s the experimental, finger-on-the-pulse-of-1965 folk/rock material that’s most fascinating. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, taking a page from The Byrds’ “Feel A Whole Lot Better” is – improbably – a candidate for definitive version of this great song. Dion pours it all out here, with an impassioned, beautifully melodic vocal, infusing the lyric with an eloquent, measured desperation Amazingly, Columbia weren’t completely enthused, but heard enough promise to match the singer up with Wilson, fresh off groundbreaking Dylan sessions and on his way to a Velvet Underground rendezvous.
Wilson, along with keyboardist Al Kooper, renewed and refracted their innovative Highway 61 sound – chiming guitars, crashing drums, ghostly organ, world-weary harmonies, the singer leaning hard into the lyric. DiMucci, for his part, responded by forming a tough new band – The Wanderers – and writing impeccable, introspective new material that, with benefit of hindsight, provides a link from Dylan to Greenwich Village brethren like Fred Neil, Tim Buckley, and Tim Hardin.
The key artifact is a slice of transcendent folk/rock glory: “Now”. Riding a gentle, carnival melody and existential lyric (which subtly answers “Like A Rolling Stone” in its dramatic chorus: “No-one knows better than I how you feel”), “Now” is a live-for-the-moment tour de force, a masterpiece of tone, verve, sustain-and-release, and breathless pop immediacy.
“Wake Up Baby” and “Knowing I Won’t Go Back There” two further Dion originals, nearly scale the heights, while an obscure Dylan composition, “Farewell”, receives a gorgeous reading. The title track, meanwhile, is a fitting metaphor for the whole album: an expansive cover of Tom Paxton’s ode to an uncertain future, Dion’s soaring vocal is tucked into a cascade of strings, keyboards, and those melancholy harmonies. Whatever the uncertain circumstances of its conception, it’s nothing short of immaculate.
“Wonder Where I’m Bound” was originally released in 1969 in the wake of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” comeback single, which had reached number four on the pop charts. The single was the latest in a string of successes for producer Phil Gernhard, who had turned to Dion to record it after reportedly considering and rejecting around 300 acts.
“Abraham, Martin and John” had received both critical acclaim and commercial success, with Billboard calling it one of Dion’s “best performances of all time” (Billboard, September 28, 1968). The challenge was to sustain this by releasing material that complemented Dion’s new folk rock sound. A number of unreleased recordings that Dion had made at Columbia were brought together, including his folk-rock reading of Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” which had been recorded in 1965 and now had strings added to match the style of “Abraham, Martin and John.”
Included is a wonderfully informative 16 page booklet.