Armed with nothing but his guitar and his familiar, reassuring voice, Dion DiMucci took the stage at the Bitter End, in New York’s Greenwich Village, in August 1971. The rock and roll survivor had successfully made the transition from teenaged doo-wopper to folk-rock troubadour, moving from independent Laurie Records to New York major Columbia and back again to Laurie, briefly reuniting with his old group The Belmonts at ABC, too. Then, in 1969, Dion made the shift to the West Coast-based Warner Bros. label. At Warner Bros., Dion recorded five albums in seven years including the Phil Spector-produced cult classic Born to Be with You. One of his Warner LPs, 1971’s Sanctuary, was largely a studio album, but included three live tracks from the Bitter End. Now, over forty years later, Omnivore Recordings and Ace Records have rescued the remaining Bitter End tracks to create the new Dion: Recorded Live at the Bitter End August 1971 (OVCD-127).
The tracks here, culled from the August residency at The Bitter End, have been sequenced to recreate an evening’s performance at one of Dion’s most frequent concert spots. The setlist blended his own classics and then-recent compositions with music from his influences and contemporaries alike. But all of the tracks on Bitter End August 1971 showcase the mature balladeer in an intimate, acoustic setting.
Though Dion scored many of his greatest successes interpreting the songs of others, he was becoming a first-class songwriter. During his Warner Bros. years, his personal trajectory dovetailed with the rise of the so-called “confessional” singer-songwriter. His songs reflected his newfound creative freedom, and featured the diverse stylistic influences that he had absorbed in the days since singing those heavenly street-corner melodies with his pals in The Belmonts.
The bright, unforced optimism of “Brand New Morning,” one of six Dion DiMucci compositions here, is seemingly an extension of his 1968 embrace of sobriety; its lyrics also look forward to Dion’s period in contemporary Christian music. It’s Dion as an inviting troubadour – “Come on, people, sing alleluia,” he implores. “You’ve got strength and love flowing through you! Give the Lord a helping hand!” This track (which would be heard in its studio rendition on the late 1971 release Sanctuary) could well have kicked off the concert performance. Instead, though, the set begins with one of its two Bob Dylan songs, “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind.”
The inclusion by a folk-inspired artist in 1971 of a couple of Dylan covers might seem obligatory, but Dion was no stranger to his onetime Columbia labelmate’s oeuvre. Both artists shared an affinity for the great blues masters, and Dion recorded Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” for Columbia in 1965. He recalls in Dean Rudland’s excellent liner notes having attended sessions with producer Tom Wilson when Wilson was laying down demo overdubs to convince Dylan to record with a band. (Oh, to have been a fly on that wall!) Indeed, the blues formed the foundation of Dion’s acoustic style, even when transformed into a pop style; in Rudland’s notes, Dion credits the legendary John Hammond with introducing him to the likes of Furry Lewis and Robert Johnson before the blues-rock boom made those heroes fashionable.
In addition to Dylan, Dion also tipped his hat to three more legendary songwriters: Chuck Berry, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Bitter End features his Vietnam-era update of Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and a lovely rendition of Macca’s “Blackbird,” complete with a whistling interlude. Dion had included “Blackbird” as well as “Let It Be,” on his first album of 1971, You’re Not Alone. Like Dylan, The Beatles inspired a change in the sound of music that Dion couldn’t ignore. He’s candid speaking with Rudland: “And naturally they called it the British Invasion; I call it the British Infusion ‘cause they kicked off. Americans dropped the ball; they didn’t even know where it came from. I was with them, so to speak. I was with what the Stones kind of fell into and loved: that Chicago blues thing.” Another song from You’re Not Alone made it to the Bitter End set – the pastoral “Sunniland,” inspired by Dion’s Florida home and co-written with Tony Fasce.
In addition to “Brand New Morning,” Dion also previewed other tracks from Sanctuary including the tranquil, sweetly blissful “Sunshine Lady,” “Willigo,” “Harmony Sound,” and the title track from Don Burnham and “Abraham, Martin and John” co-writer Dick Holler. Naturally, the elegiac “Abraham,” originally recorded by Dion on his self-titled Laurie Records “comeback” album in 1968, was played at the Bitter End. Dion’s rendition is unsurprisingly impassioned and beautifully raw as it lacks the orchestration of the studio original. While Dion didn’t revisit many hits – there’s no “Runaround Sue” or “A Teenager in Love” here – he did find room for a blues reworking of the swaggering “The Wanderer” and the rock-and-roll of Leiber and Stoller’s oldie “Ruby Baby.”
Best of all on Recorded Live at the Bitter End may well be Dion’s performance of his wrenching, autobiographical 1970 single “Your Own Back Yard.” Chronicling the singer’s drug abuse and recovery, it is equal parts chilling and touching in this stripped-down milieu. In the set as presented here, it’s also effectively sequenced, preceding Lightnin’ Hopkins’ cautionary blues “You Better Watch Yourself (Drinkin’ That Wine).” (Like “Abraham” and another track here, Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy,” the Hopkins tune was included on the 1968 Laurie album.)
There’s a boldness and confidence on these voice-and-guitar performances (well-mastered by Duncan Cowell for crisp sound throughout), as well as an innate gentility and searching quality that makes Dion’s connection with the audience palpable. Two of the tracks on Bitter End, ”Abraham, Martin and John” and “Ruby Baby” were included in their Bitter End performances on Sanctuary, but alternative edits have been employed here. (The third Bitter End cut on Sanctuary, Eric Von Schmidt’s “Almond Joy,” has not been reprised on this set.) With seventeen tracks touching on folk, blues, rock and roll, and pop from a national treasure of American music, Dion: Recorded Live at the Bitter End, August 1971 is one of the year’s happiest vault finds.