Dion – Recorded Live at the Bitter End, August 1971 (review)

Dion – Recorded Live at the Bitter End, August 1971 (Omnivore/Ace) review

If you only know him for songs like “Runaround Sue,” prepared to be blown away

A former teen idol doing acoustic blues and folk might seem like an odd career choice – unless you understand Dion’s roots.  Recorded Live at the Bitter End is a compilation of newly-discovered recordings featuring just Dion on guitar and vocals, taped in front of an intimate audience.  It’s just one of the many twists & turns over his long career.

Starting out in the early days of rock n’ roll, Dion was part of the Winter Dance Party tour in 1959 that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens & the Big Bopper (Dion chose to ride the bus, while the others were in the plane that crashed).  He had huge success with songs like “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer” in the early Sixties.  But, when the hits began to dry up, he immersed himself in his first love – the blues.  Since no teen idol has ever had a hit with a Robert Johnson song, these recordings were rejected by his record label.  Undaunted, Dion began honing his guitar chops, and assembling an arsenal of folk tunes.  The result was “Abraham Martin & John,” a return to the top of the charts in 1968, and subsequent solo shows around the country.

The first thing you notice is that Dion is in fine voice – soaring during the Dylan opener “Mama You’ve Been on My Mind,” then laying down the grit on Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.”  Yet, it’s his stellar guitar playing that really impresses, especially on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking.”

The set is a summation of everything in his career to this point, highlighted by several self-penned compositions: the autobiographical “Your Own Backyard” and “Sunshine Lady,” written for his wife.  But, he throws in covers of the Beatles and Leonard Cohen to his interesting mix as well.

While completely comfortable in this new setting, he does seem to apologize for his previous success.  His “oh by the way, this song was a big hit” introduction to a re-worked “The Wanderer” shows he hadn’t totally laid those demons to rest, although his blues-infused rendition of the song is scorching.  Ditto for “Ruby Baby.”

For whatever reason, this solo, acoustic phase of his career never took off with the public, even though a new crop of artists like James Taylor and Jim Croce were climbing the charts. He would soon reunite with his old band, the Belmonts, for a successful concert, then would record a dark album with Phil Spector, explore his Gospel roots through much of the Eighties, then record a comeback album with Dave Edmunds in 1989.  The last ten years have seen Dion return once again to his roots, recording a series of critically-acclaimed acoustic blues albums.  Live at the Bitter End is an excellent introduction to the deep catalog of one of the finest artists in American rock n’ roll.  —Tony Peters