Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Dion - Stomping Ground

Okay, so it’s the season of goodwill and all that, but you know what one of my favourite Christmas movies is?  The Grinch, with Jim Carrey all hairy, green, and most of all grouchy.  So before I get into telling you about the good things on Stomping Ground, I wanna get a couple of gripes off my chest, alright?
Gripe #1:  The album follows the same guest artist formula as 2020’s Blues With Friends.  It’s an approach that can have some artistic value by way of spicing up an artist’s sound and repertoire, but for me repeating the trick seems too much like a marketing tactic.  If the songs are good
Dion - still stompin'!
Pic by Steve Cell
enough, then why not just record with a core band, and pull in name guests on just a couple of tracks if you want some extra stardust?  This is Dion DiMucci fer cryin’ out loud, not Joe Schmo no-one's ever heard of!
Gripe #2:  There are fourteen tracks included here, and while plenty of ‘em are good ‘uns, a few are makeweights.  And are some tracks overextended just to get more mileage out of the guest turns?  Now then it feels like the pudding is being over-egged.
But that’s enough bah-humbuggery for now.  Because when the opening track 'Take It Back' kicks in, it’s a catchy old thing which Dion sells well over a strutting rhythm laid down by the bass and drums.  And Joe Bonamassa, who would probably turn up to provide a guest solo for the opening of an envelope, does in fact elevate the song with a bundle of humorous, on-point and interestingly-toned licks.
The swaying and sinuous ‘Dancing Girl’ lives up to its title with a danceable Latin rhythm fit for your next Salsa class.  And with some pinpoint guitar from Mark Knopfler in his inimitable style, enhanced by some subtle interplay with the piano, it’s very good indeed.  On the other hand, while Eric Clapton brings some decent soloing to the blues shuffle of ‘If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll’, the star of this particular show is Dion himself, singing “I’m a rhythm king baby, I can groove all night long” and other such lines, in a manner that suggests they have less to do with the dance floor than the bedroom.
‘There Was A Time’ is a slow blues with a kinda European feel to its suspenseful melody, and Peter Frampton doesn’t feel the need to fill every crevice with his playing, while there’s plenty more to notice between the deep rolling horns, the rippling piano, and the sweeping strings add to the melancholy feel.  Sonny Landreth delivers suitably weeping slide guitar on the intro of ‘Cryin’ Shame’, but his playing warms up as the song progresses, and instruments interweave on a textured arrangement with a deceptively simple beat.  There’s slide guitar too, courtesy of Keb’ Mo’, on the album’s only cover, a version of Hendrix’s ‘Red House’.  On early listens I was less than impressed, but there is some merit in its rootsy approach and Dion’s plaintive vocal, even if the contributions of Keb’ Mo’ don’t amount to much.
Getting away from the guitars, ‘Angel In The Alleyways’ may not be a classic, but it’s certainly better than ‘Hymn To Her’, Dion’s previous collaboration with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa.  An acoustic guitar-led piece of Americana, with the Boss and his missus supplying harmonica and hushed harmonies, it manages to combine tension and urgency.  But the two tracks that foreground piano are bigger winners.  ‘That’s What The Doctor Said’ makes lyrical reference to Dr John, and backs that up with a New Orleans groove foregrounding sweeping, swinging ivories from Steve Conn, while horns toot in fine fashion.  And ‘I Got My Eyes On You’ is a rock'n’roll train stoked by Marcia Ball’s piano, rattling along with intermittent horn punctuation and then bright riffs on the chorus, plus twanging guitar from Jimmy Vivino.
There’s more rockn’roll, of the Chuck Berry variety, on the amusing, foot-tapping ‘I’ve Got To Get To You’, on which Dion shares the mic with Boz Scaggs.  But the more interesting duet is the closing ‘I’ve Been Watching’, to which Rickie Lee Jones adds characterful vocals in tandem with DiMucci, the mood shifting between reflective and impassioned in satisfying fashion, while producer Wayne Hood adds fluid guitar that fits the song well.
When you get right down to it, Stomping Ground is a good album.  But it’d be a better one with more focus – focus on fewer songs to maintain the quality, and focus on Dion’s delivery more than a troupe of guests.  Hasn’t the guy earned the right to the spotlight?

Stomping Ground is out now on Keeping The Blues Alive Records, and can be ordered here.

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