For many young people, Dion was the coolest guy on the planet in the early ’60s. With his band The Belmonts, he was too cool to need a last name (although it is DiMucci). When he sang about being “The Wanderer,” the kids believed he could roam around and get any girl he wanted. And when the wave of early rock and roll ebbed, Dion reinvented himself as a singer-songwriter and interpreter of others’ songs, and there was nobody hipper than he was then, either. It was at this point, in 1971, that this recording was made live at the famous Bitter End in New York City.
It was only Dion and his acoustic guitar on stage that night as he charmed his way through laid-back versions of his own songs and covers of some of the best songwriters around, like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and even, surprisingly, Chuck Berry and Lightnin’ Hopkins. He included, of course, his last big hit, “Abraham, Martin and John,” which captured the emotion of many who lived through the lives and deaths of the American icons the song is about.
While his version of “Too Much Monkey Business” is extremely laid-back for a Berry song, it is an interesting interpretation. Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” gets a sensitive rendering that lacks the intensity of the original but which has its own tenderness and resonance. Dion’s version of McCartney’s “Blackbird” is stunningly beautiful, and Dylan’s “Mama, You Been on My Mind” is a perfect match for his voice and style.
Turning to his own songs, Dion gives us the extremely honest “Your Own Backyard,” about his then-recent recovery from heroin addiction, and “Sunniland” and “Sanctuary,” which reflect his thankfulness to be alive and drug-free and are precursors of his later career as a Contemporary Christian artist. His “Sunshine Lady” is a sweet love song that shows his new contentment as well. In fact, the whimsical “Willigo” and “Harmony Sound” also reflect his new clean living and budding spirituality. He was singing from the heart and it shows.
The highlights of the album for me, however, come when Dion takes us back to his early days with a new rendition of “The Wanderer,” remade as a 12-bar blues number that works just as well as the rock version that made him a star, followed by another iconic hit, “Ruby, Ruby,” on which he lets that cool rock and roll dude show that he’s still in there alongside the folkie crooner.
When Lou Reed inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said, “Who could be hipper than Dion?” This album will only help us all remember just how true that really is.
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