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Listening Report: Dion DiMucci, 21st Century Bluesman, Returns To His Stomping Grounds

Mark Smotroff grooves on the blues roots of an iconic doo wop rock ’n roll legend…

If you stop and think about it, the big hit by doo-wop legend and rock & roll icon Dion DiMucci – “The Wanderer” – is pretty much a blues song.  Heck, even the Wiki takes note of it being a “12-bar blues” based song. One key difference which made that 1961 smash hit stand out from other strict blues tunes of the times was its buoyant production but also attention to delivering a strong “hook.” 

That is a detail that a lot of listeners (and songwriters for that matter) overlook these days when exploring the blues — and frankly, a lot of modern pop recordings for that matter.  A good hook is one of the things I listen for when I’m listening to blues artists old and young, past and present.  Now, I realize that Dion didn’t write “The Wanderer,” — it was by his songwriting partner of his earlier hit “Runaround Sue,” Ernie Maresca — but he no doubt learned some powerful lessons from his early teen idol period and through his folk singer-songwriter days.   

Many of the most popular and legendary Blues songs that have gone on to become part of the canon of American culture all have that same thing in common with Dion’s pop tune: a great hook.  There is usually a signature phrase that the song wraps itself around emotionally. It might be a guitar riff… It might be a vocal line… But if you go back and listen you’ll find that common thread in so many of the classic blues tunes which artists perform to this day, be it Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” or Tampa Red’s “It Hurts Me Too.” 

There is a worldly ease and confidence about Dion’s new album Stomping Ground that is palpable. One of the things that makes Dion’s latest stand out is that he’s written some catchy tunes which stand on their own legs with great hooks and a heartfelt feel.  

Many fine celebrity guests grace Stomping Ground yet the resulting album is remarkably consistent start to finish and it never loses the sense that this is first and foremost a Dion album. So it is great that Joe Bonamassa, Mark Knopfler, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Frampton turn in some great performances.  Heck, even Pete Townshend pens the opening liner notes to the album!  

The follow on to 2020’s critically and commercially successful Blues With Friends, the music on Stomping Ground feels timeless. And that alone is a major accomplishment for any artist.  Dion’s voice has taken on a rich, gently weathered patina which fits the music well. 

From his website we learn an underlying perspective driving Stomping Ground’s development:

“When I was young, I was always striving for accolades and admiration. Those were my goals.  But when I reached them, they didn’t satisfy.  I discovered joy when I leaned to stop caring about all that – when I learned to relax and make music with friends… music that would make more friends for us through its joy.  To make music with friends, and to make friends through music: I can’t imagine a better life than this.  I am grateful to my friends who made Stomping Ground with me – and my new friends who are listening.”

Some of my favorite cuts thus far on Stomping Ground include the aching “There Was A Time” which has Peter Frampton turning in some scorching and soulful soloing that fits the mood of the song perfectly. The gritty swamp Gospel of “Angel In The Alleyways,” featuring contributions from Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, also rings heartfelt and true.  

There is one fascinating re-interpretation on Stomping Ground, a stripping down of Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” — which at the time was an electric update on the blues form, and a live performance staple throughout his career — back to its raw  roots, floating the electrified support of Keb Mo over a bed of rich acoustic guitar swagger.   

I was really happy to find the closing track with Rickie Lee Jones, which amazingly blends a groove and production aesthetic that brings an early Steely Dan vibe to the tune (think “Ricki Don’t Lose That Number” by way of “The Royal Scam”).

There is so much more to explore here…  

Happily, the sound on his new CD is quite good with a very natural feel which doesn’t feel tweaked to fit current trends, playlists and radio formatting.  And in 2022, there is promise of the album becoming available on vinyl (click here to pre-order). You can find Stomping Ground streaming in CD quality on Tidal (click here) and 24-bit, 44.1 kHz fidelity on Qobuz (click here). 

When it comes to street-wise music, Dion DiMucci is one of the greats who knows what it’s all about out there.  

Pete Townshend summed it up well in the liner notes: “Dion, like a circling star that never fades, generates the energy and fire we need to pull ourselves up and start again.”

You should be listening to Dion. 

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