Dion Tank Full of Blues. Powered by a fresh verve that permeates this collection, the veteran bluesman eschews musical invention for some solid electric blues and a bold statement of faith.

Label: Blue Horizon
Time: 11 Tracks / 45 minutes  

Dion is a man with history. He could have perished on what Don McLean famously called “the day the music died.” He was only saved from being on the plane crash in which Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died because he felt the $36 cost – which equated to the rent his parents paid for his childhood apartment – was too indulgent. Maybe that was ironic, given that in the early ‘sixties, his chart hits brought him serious income, even in those days when managers seemed to be taking more than was fair. Popular with critics for some years, he has undergone a recent renaissance, being nominated for a Grammy for his superb acoustic blues album Bronx in Blue. After another acoustic follow-up (the less striking Son of Skip James) he has now released an electric blues collection.

Ex-Rolling Stone writer Dave Marsh commented, while recording a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame interview with him in 2010, that Dion was the only original rock and roll artist (that is, on the charts in 1958) who has remained alive and relevant. It was that comment – and a dare by his wife to maintain his momentum – that inspired this set of tunes, which came through what the artist calls in his liner notes, “the most creative period of songwriting in my life.”

Following two acoustic collections, this inevitably comes across as louder and bolder, but that does not mean that it is more impressive. Losing the subtlety of acoustic blues could lump Tank Full of Blues in with countless other similar releases – and my initial impressions were that this was largely run of the mill, with a couple of bold exceptions.

But subsequent plays have brought out the project’s energy. Its title – a line that opens the collection – describes the impetus that drives him and it shows in the growling guitar undercurrent of “Ride’s Blues (for Robert Johnson),” the fresh verve of “Michelle” and the gorgeous groove of the “Two Train Medley.” John Mayall seems to shine through the casually glistening guitar work of the tribute song “I Read It in the Rolling Stone.”

There is also something about his singing that reveals his passion for these songs. Just check out the end of "Michelle" and the way he staccatos the line about “Mississippi mud” in “Ride’s Blues.”

Catching phrases from classic songs like “Wild Thing” and McCartney’s “Michelle,” namechecking Robert Plant as well as quoting Fannie Lee Hamer's line about  being "sick and tired of being sick and tired," he seems not so much clinging to the past as feeling comfortable enough in the present to casually throw these in. This is his life and where he feels at home.

While several twelve-bar pieces here do not stretch Dion’s creative muscles, he ends the disc in a completely different tone with “Bronx Poem.” Talking over an acoustic shuffle and electric fills, Dion somes out with an almost stream of consciousness reflection of what God has done for him in his life. Several bits only make sense when you know his history – growing up in the Bronx, his drug addiction and the songs that rejuvenated his career. After mentioning Martin Luther King and Elvis, the rock and roll king, Dion states, “I ride with the King of kings. He brought me through.”

If he never recorded again, this would be a powerful valediction, but there is no sign yet of the man stopping. As he ends his liner notes, he asks, “Now, what am I going to do next?”


Derek Walker

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