Dion: Recorded Live at Bitter End, August 1971
An archival recording of a transitional period in Dion’s eclectic career, this record offers a smattering of the styles for which he’s best known to varying to degrees of success.
Dion DiMucci has lived at least four separate musical lives over the course of his nearly 60-year career. Beginning with the Belmonts in the early 1960s, he trafficked in the doo wop and early rock styles of the day. By the late ‘60s, he’d adopted more of a folky persona infused with hints of the Delta blues. By the mid-‘70s, he’d embraced MOR pop, bringing in Phil Spector to infuse his overlooked 1975 masterpiece Born to Be With You with shag-carpet production. In the 21st century, Dion has returned to the blues, cutting several critically acclaimed albums of Delta blues delivered in his inimitable growl.
But in 1971, the year the performance on Ace’s new release was captured at New York’s Bitter End, Dion was a man without a sound to call his own. An intimate solo performance, Recorded Live at Bitter End, August 1971 finds Dion exploring his options. Sticking largely to his more folk-oriented material and a slate of covers informed by the success of 1968’s self-titled release, these recordings offer a subdued, contemplative side of Dion not generally associated with his better-known material (“Abraham, Martin And John” notwithstanding).
As if reaffirming his folk persona, Dion opens the show with a quiet reading of Dylan’s “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind”. While lovingly performed, it’s a tepid, tired rendition that is rightly greeted by equally timid, almost disinterested applause. As if sensing the audience’s disconnect he quickly rolls through an original (“Brand New Morning”) before diving headlong into what seems to be his true passion, the blues.
With Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” he attempts to enliven the performance with some weak stage patter in hopes of winning over the audience. Finding this having failed, he gives the song all he’s got, his voice an ideal instrument to convey the blues, sliding up and down the melody with an effortlessness Berry could only dream of. Taking an astonishingly deft vocal scat solo, Dion shows of his full range within the performances first three numbers.
But it’s not until the maudlin “Abraham, Martin and John” that the audience seems to rouse itself, applauding wildly upon recognition of the hit. This response seems to only further Dion’s resolve to present the audience with more challenging material, briefly quoting “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” before the song’s second verse. It’s an interesting approach to the song the majority of the audience no doubt came to the show anticipating.
With the audience having been sated with the deployment of his requisite hit, Dion delves into a spate of covers from the likes of Leonard Cohen (“Sisters of Mercy”), Sonny Boy Williams (“Don’t Start Me Talking”), Bob Dylan (“One Too Many Mornings”), and the Beatles (a stellar reinterpretation of “Blackbird”). While stylistically disparate, Dion manages to inject much of himself into these songs, reinventing each in a manner befitting both his voice and burgeoning understanding of an artistic aesthetic clearly in flux.
While not having truly found his voice at this point, Dion proves himself a nuanced interpreter with an impressive range and underappreciated skills as a guitarist. His reimagining of “Blackbird” in particular is notable for its almost jazz-like chord structure. Here his guitar anticipates the downbeat on the well-known ascending riff, while his vocals are largely free-form, soaring high above the original melody in favor of a much more personal reading. It’s a highly effective approach that, had it been applied more freely throughout, would have easily elevated these recordings from merely good to great.
Where Dion truly shines, and where he’s rightly gravitated in recent years, is the blues. Beginning with “You Better Watch Yourself aka Drinkin’ That Wine”, his performance changes ever so slightly. There’s a looseness to his approach, a relaxed feel that allows him to fully inhabit the song in a way not present on the other performances here. Similarly, “Don’t Start Me Talking” shows not only his guitar skills, but also his mastery of the Delta blues idiom at a time when the majority of popular white performers were plugging in and rocking a bastardized version of the electric blues. Here he elects to stick close to the source material, a traditionalist in the best, most reverential sense. It’s a fairly bold move, but with little to lose at the time critically or commercially, Dion was free to follow his muse to varying degrees of success.
A sympathetic, light-hearted representation of an unjustly overlooked, exceptional vocalist and interpreter, Recorded Live at Bitter End, August 1971 serves more as a transitional moment than a definitive artistic statement. Covering all periods of his career up to that point, the song selections and performances are a bit too scattershot to transcend their better-known incarnations. That said, it’s intriguing to hear the majesty of his voice unburdened by excessive production and instrumentation, free to explore the uncharted corners of songs both familiar and obscure. That not everything works is of little consequence as Dion seems to be enjoying himself enough for everyone in the audience. And that, as a listener, is all one can hope for from a live recording.