If you’re surprised to see a blues album from Dion, you haven’t been paying attention. Yes, he is primarily known for his wonderful early-rock-era records with and without the Belmonts, but even in those days he delivered a smattering of blues tracks. And since then, Dion has periodically dipped into a blues bag for albums such as Bronx in Blue (2006), Son of Skip James (2007), and Tank Full of Blues (2011).
As he points out in the booklet that accompanies the new Blues with Friends, the genre has “been at the heart of my music since the early 1960s. I was covering Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed in my early years at Columbia—much to the dismay of my corporate masters—and my own ‘The Wanderer’ is a twelve-bar blues song.”
While several of Dion’s previous albums have featured solo acoustic covers of some of the genre’s classic tunes, Blues with Friends incorporates more rock flavoring. Moreover, all of its tracks are Dion originals (most of them cowritten with book author Mike Aquilina). And as the album title indicates, an assortment of friends join Dion on this album, among them such luminaries as Jeff Beck, Van Morrison, Steve Van Zandt, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Scialfa.
He even enlisted Bob Dylan to pen some of the liner notes. “When you have a voice as deep and wide as Dion’s,” writes Dylan, “that voice can take you all the way around the world and then all the way back home to the blues.”
There’s plenty here to justify that tribute, including the lively “Uptown Number 7,” which features rhythm and lead guitar by Brian Setzer; “Can’t Start Over Again,” a country blues tune that Dion suggests was influenced by Hank Williams; and “My Baby Loves to Boogie,” with John Hammond on harmonica.
The most affecting track, though, is the pop-flavored “Song for Sam Cooke (Here in America),” which contains social commentary that makes it redolent of Dion’s 1968 top-five hit, “Abraham, Martin & John.” In this deeply personal, violin-spiced song, which the singer says he wrote a long time ago, he recalls touring with Cooke in 1962 and laments not paying enough attention back then to the fact that, for example, he could stay in hotels that wouldn’t admit Cooke because of his race. “You were the star standing in the light,” Dion sings. “That won you nothing on a city street at night.”
The only thing about this album that might disappoint is the lack of vocal duets with some of the great singers who collaborate with Dion. When you first eye the list of accompanists, you’ll likely be excited by the prospect of hearing him trade choruses with many of them. He does share lead vocals with Morrison, but Springsteen and Van Zandt provide only guitar work, and Scialfa and Simon contribute relatively minor background vocal parts.
This is just a quibble, however. For more than 60 years now, Dion has been making excellent albums. This is one of them.
The Harmed Brothers, Across the Waves. Singer/guitarist Ray Vietti and multi-instrumentalist Alex Salcido, who formed the Harmed Brothers more than a decade ago, now lead a full rock/Americana band that incorporates pedal steel, keyboards, and percussion. This amiable fifth album delivers a blend of original ballads and up-tempo material that benefits from emotive gravelly vocals and excellent musicianship.
At least two of the tunes—“Funnies,” which includes the line “the earth is running out of truth,” and “Skyline Over”—seem particularly relevant today. Most of the lyrics, though, deal with timeless themes, such as love and familial rifts.
Fun fact: this is one of many musical groups of non-relatives who for some reason can’t resist including the word “brothers” in their moniker. Others include the Righteous Brothers, the Walker Brothers, and the Brothers Four. There’s also 5 Chinese Brothers, who were neither brothers nor Chinese.
Nate Lee, Wings of a Jetliner. Fingers were clearly flying when mandolinist Nate Lee—who additionally plays fiddle and banjo on a few of the tracks—made this upbeat album of traditional- and modern-sounding bluegrass. Joining Lee are a variety of harmony vocalists and instrumentalists, among them fiddler Becky Buller, in whose band Lee also plays.
Lee delivers five self-penned instrumental originals plus covers of seven vocal numbers ranging from Bill Caswell’s “Sweet Allis Chalmers” to “All Along,” a composition that first appeared on the sixth studio album by the California punk-rock band the Offspring. Fans of bluegrass and acoustic folk music should be pleased.
Darlin’ Brando, Also, too… Darlin’ Brando—not to be confused with an Australian pop group called Darling Brando—is the pseudonym for singer, songwriter, and drummer Brandon Goldstein. He has apparently done a fair amount of session work and also co-led a psychedelic folk-pop band called Money & King. This auspicious solo outing delivers eight self-penned country/rock tunes, four of which were co-written with his talented second wife, Edith Freni, who shares lead vocals on two of them.
Goldstein has been through a divorce, as you might suspect after listening to the lyrics of such songs as “Crumbling Marriages,” “Therapy,” and “When You Don’t Fight.” But this is a mostly upbeat album, loaded with catchy melodies and songs that call you back for more. The best cuts include “Weeds & Flowers,” a pretty, pedal-steel-enhanced ballad that other artists will likely be tempted to cover; and the well-hooked “Those Old Demons,” which sounds like something you might hear in a Texas roadside bar.