Dion: “Tank Full of Blues”

Dion DiMucci started out as a singer in a doo-wop group; straddling the line between teen-idol R&B and late-50’s rock and roll, he came of age in an era when most rock songs were about either cars or girls.  More than 50 years later, Dion has a new album called Tank Full of Blues. He’ s still got cars on his mind, and rest assured that there are plenty of girls here, too. But as the title indicates, he’s past the point of caring about the flashy stuff. His mind has turned to what’s under the hood, what’s been driving this music all along.

This is hardly the first Dion blues album. Even those early teenybopper records had some blues here and there, and the singer is rounding out a trilogy of latter-day masterworks that also includes Bronx in Blue and Son of Skip James. The music he’s been making for the past ten years, and continues with Tank Full of Blues, has drawn comparisons to Dylan’s own latter-day albums as the elder statesman of American blues and roots music. Love & Theft was overflowing with words and ideas, however, and Modern Times cloaked in a haze of existential mystique. Tank Full of Blues is clean, compact, and powerful; Dion recorded it in a guitar/bass/drums trio format, and the songs are lean and cut close to the bone.

There is very little here that couldn’t have been recorded in the 1950’s, or even earlier, but there is no sepia-toned nostalgia here, no romanticizing of the past, none of the analog fetishizing that sometimes characterizes these albums (like the still-very-good Gregg Allman album from last year). Dion handles the blues as living history, stretching through the back alleys of American song but still very much alive and kicking today. There is simply too much combustible chemistry from the band, and too much humor and feeling in the songwriting, for this to be nostalgia.

Even when there are references to the past– and there are many of them– it illuminates the present-day reality of Dion’s music. His “Train Medley” joins together a Muddy Waters song with a Robert Johnson one, but it’s not a generic mash-up; he get to the heart of what connects these songs. Their union here is revelatory. Johnson is again invoked in the original composition “Rider’s Blues,” which re-imagines the famous story of Johnson at the crossroads, only here it’s a done as a myth that speaks to spiritual crossroads of all kinds. It cuts to the core of what makes blues music so human, which is the album’s true gift to us.

And then there’s “I Read It (In the Rolling Stone),” in which our singer shuns the very notion of turning to a newspaper for truth or insight into the world in which he lives. And who can blame him? He turns instead to rock’s most venerable publication, an idea that makes a lot of sense to me, and asks himself what Robert Plant might do. If a song like this one doesn’t carry the sting of wit and wisdom, I don’t know what does.

There are plenty of moments here that hit just as hard– I’m partial to the sly title track and the full-force slam of “I’m Ready to Go”– but if there’s a moment here that truly disarms, and pushes Dion way out ahead of anywhere he has ever been before (to say nothing of his peers), it has to be the closer, “Bronx Poem.” A spoken word piece that’s the direct opposite of pretentious, the track finds Dion giving a full outpouring of gratitude, humility, and sincerity. It’s a poem of thanks, for all the places he’s been and all the blessings he’s been given. It’s a a moment of perfect purity, earnestness, and candor– the perfectly rousing conclusion to an album that turn the blues into a celebration of life and music.

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