Dion, Son of Skip James (Verve Records, 2007) and Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock (Saguaro Road, 2008)

For somebody rapidly approaching his seventieth birthday, rock legend Dion DiMucci has been awfully busy. His 2006 labor of love Bronx in Blue, a celebration of the blues music he grew up with, was one of my favorite albums from that year. But that was just the first entry in a trilogy (at least so far) of tribute albums that Dion has put out. 2007's Son of Skip James chronicles the transition from blues to rock, and focuses somewhat on the more spiritual elements of the blues. Then, on this past year's Heroes: Giants of Early Guitar Rock, Dion pays homage to many of his contemporaries who defined rock and roll in the late fifties.

Son of Skip James
picks up where Bronx in Blue left off. A keyboard is added to the basic acoustic guitar and drum arrangements, and Dion focuses more on aggressive strumming than straight picking with his guitar, but the cool bluesy feel remains largely unchanged. Dion's singing has lost none of the attitude over the years, and his guitar playing continues to be a revelation. On this album Dion covers blues stalwarts like Willie Dixon and "Sleepy" John Estes, but he also includes some performers from the rock era like Chuck Berry and even Bob Dylan. Highlights include Berry's "Nadine," Estes' "Drop Down Mama," and Dylan's "Baby I'm in the Mood for You."

The second half of the album gets more religious, echoing back to the gospel phase of Dion's career in the late seventies and early eighties. Dion's own "The Thunderer" tells of St. Jerome, an acerbic and often conflicted writer who, perhaps in spite of himself, made essential contributions to the development of the early Catholic Church. "Son of Skip James," another original composition, was inspired by a conversation Dion once had with the late blues singer that covered a variety of topics, including Jesus. Dion ties the religious themes back to the blues by closing the album with Robert Johnson's "Preachin' Blues" and "If I Had Possession (Over Judgement Day), followed by "Devil Got My Woman" from, predictably, Skip James.

For Heroes, Dion brings in a second guitarist and bassist for a full band sound, and the result is some good old fashioned rock and roll. Most of the songs on this disc are part of the canon, and probably familiar to most people. Dion gets to the likes of Eddie Cochran ("Summertime Blues"), Elvis ("Jailhouse Rock"), Johnny Cash ("I Walk the Line"), and yes, even himself (the album finishes with an only slightly updated version of "The Wanderer"). The album works well, for the simple reason that it consists of really good performances of really good songs. This is music that is worth remembering and preserving, from performers who deserve to be remembered as well. Unfortunately, other than Dion himself, Chuck Berry (who's well into his eighties), and The Everly Brothers (who only occasionally perform these days), the original performers of these songs are no longer with us. Having been part of the infamous Winter Dance Party tour in 1959 with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (Holly and Valens are both covered on Heroes), and having passed on the opportunity to share a plane ride with the ill-fated trio, Dion is probably more keenly aware of that fact than anybody.

Dion has now devoted three albums to the music of his inspirations and his contemporaries. While it's easy to question the need to repeat what's already been done, the fact is that there is an awful lot of good music from the early decades of rock and roll that needs to be preserved, and the original performers are mostly not around to do it themselves. The songs on Son of Skip James and Heroes sound as fresh and vital now as they ever have. And, perhaps more importantly, so does Dion.

Overall grades:
Son of Skip James B+
Heroes A-

reviewed by Scott

Dion lays down the vocal track for "Summertime Blues."

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2009 The Green Man Review

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