Once a celebrated pre-British Invasion teen idol, Dion Francis DiMucci certainly could have been forgiven for settling into the oldies circuit — where mindless regurgitations of “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” would be both welcome and blindingly boring. Instead, Dion has since the early 1970s set about on a thematically appropriate wanderer’s search — exploring with varying degrees of success, in his post-heroin period, everything from folk to Christian music.
It’s been a brave, if sometimes frustrating trek. Yet all of that somehow completely paid off, as Dion eventually arrived at something so meaningfully connective, so deeply redemptive, on the forthcoming Tank Full of Blues, the capstone of a recent trio of Delta-focused recordings.
Principally composed by Dion himself, and featuring a series of tangy guitar licks from the former doo-wop legend, the album makes good on the lost promise of his post-Belmonts period in a way that’s as complete as it is surprising. The music is scaldingly real, and the emotional import lastingly memorable. It’s difficult, in retrospect, to believe Dion hasn’t been doing this for years.
In a way, I suppose, he has. After meeting Columbia Records svengali John Hammond in the early 1960s, Dion actually recorded a spate of blues sides that he’d loved as a kid — including Chess legend Willie Dixon‘s “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Spoonful,” much to the confusion of his management. Yet, despite the presence of Al Kooper on keys, these early stabs went nowhere on the charts. Dion later attempted a reunion or two with the Belmonts, moved into singer-songwriterdom, worked with Phil Spector, was briefly born again — but, alas, sold almost no records.
Maybe, after wandering through so many storylines, in and out of so many deadends, having gained and then lost so much, Dion was uniquely prepared for a belated return to this kind of music. There is a startling clarity to the songwriting on Tank Full of Blues, set for release on January 24 — from “Ride’s Blues” (an imaginative talk with the doomed bluesman Robert Johnson), to the rockabilly cool of “I’m Ready To Go” to the spoken-word clarity of his strikingly autobiographical “Bronx Poem.”
As deep as it is unlikely, this is roots music — American music — of the first order. Call it the logical extension of a journey that began with 2006’s bare-bones Grammy-nominated Bronx in Blue (with Dion, alone on an acoustic, interpreting a selection of tunes from Dixon, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Johnson), then continued through 2008’s Son of Skip James, which expanded its reach to include descendent pieces like Chuck Berry’s “Nadine.” Yet, Tank Full of Blues is anything but predictable, everything but rote.
Along the way, Dion’s found the underlying notion of the best blues, the search for redemption, and made it real all over again. A triumph.