Ter­rell’s Tune-Up

Al­bums by Ben­jamin Booker and Dion DiMucci

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

This week I’m look­ing at a re­cently re­leased al­bum by one of my fa­vorite new artists of the past few years as well as one by a guy whose mu­sic I’ve en­joyed for nearly 60 years. I’m talk­ing about Ben­jamin Booker — age twenty-seven, for those keep­ing score at home — and the mighty Dion DiMucci, who will turn seventy-eight next month.

Three years ago, Booker’s rock­ing self-ti­tled de­but al­bum was one of the most ex­cit­ing records I’d heard in years. His record com­pany had hyped the al­bum as a cross be­tween the dark punk-blues of Gun Club, the Mis­sis­sippi gospel of Blind Wil­lie John­son, and the crunch­ing glam-rock of T-Rex. But it wasn’t only that. “I was just a mu­sic lover who won­dered what it would sound like if Otis Red­ding strapped on a gui­tar and played in a punk band,” Booker told NPR a cou­ple of years ago. And dang if that’s not what he sounds like. His first al­bum was so good that I al­most dreaded hear­ing the fol­low-up. How could the kid pos­si­bly top that al­bum? How could Booker pos­si­bly avoid the dreaded sopho­more slump?

Now the wait is over. Booker’s new one, Wit­ness, is here. And, while it’s not nearly as head-turn­ing as his first, it would be wrong to call the new record a slump or a set­back. The late Richie Havens had a sweet and wise song called “Younger Men Grow Older,” and in­deed, Booker seems to have grown in the past three years. Wit­ness shows the ef­fects of ma­tu­rity on this artist. Not only are the lyrics more pointed, more socially aware, but the mu­sic shows a will­ing­ness to ex­per­i­ment and ex­plore, with the end re­sult even more grounded in gospel and soul mu­sic.

No, Booker hasn’t for­got­ten how to rock. The al­bum opens with “Right On You,” which could go blow-for-blow with the wildest tunes on the first al­bum. “Off the Ground” starts off de­cep­tively mel­low, with Booker singing gen­tly over an acous­tic gui­tar and pi­ano for about a minute be­fore sud­denly shift­ing into a full-throt­tle rock­ing rage. And the al­bum ends with the fran­tic “All Was Well,” in which Booker bor­rows freely from Rev. Gary Davis’ “Sam­son & Delilah.” (“If I had my way, I would tear this build­ing down.”)

But this al­bum is bound to be bet­ter re­mem­bered for the slower, more gospel-soaked songs like “Be­lieve,” in which Booker sings, “I just want to be­lieve in some­thing/I don’t care if it’s right or wrong.” One of my fa­vorites is “The Slow Drag Un­der,” a funky tune with a swampy gui­tar. It al­most could be a Prince song. I sus­pect this and “Truth Is Heavy” have their psy­chic roots in Prince’s Sign O’ The Times.

The ti­tle tune fea­tures guest back­ground vo­cals by none other than Mavis Sta­ples, the liv­ing em­bod­i­ment of soul and gospel mu­sic. It was in­spired not only by po­lice killings and white na­tion­al­ist vi­o­lence of re­cent years but also by a per­sonal in­ci­dent in Mex­ico, where Booker was shoved around by lo­cals who, as a Mex­i­can friend ex­plained to him, “don’t like peo­ple who aren’t from here.” Booker sings, “Right now we could use a lit­tle pick-me-up/Seems like the whole damn na­tion’s try­ing to take us down/When your brother’s dy­ing/Mother’s cry­ing/TV’s ly­ing.”

This al­bum might be the clos­est thing to Marvin Gaye’s land­mark al­bum What’s Go­ing On that we’ve heard in years. Check out www.atorecords.com/ artists/ben­jamin-booker.

Speak­ing of mu­si­cians in tran­si­tion, that cer­tainly was the case of the ven­er­ated rocker Dion in the mid’60s. Nor­ton Records has just re­leased his “lost” al­bum of 1965, Kickin’ Child. Here’s a man who started off lit­er­ally singing on New York street cor­ners with his doo-wop group, the Bel­monts. Dion knew ex­actly how it hurt to be a teenager in love, and he had the hit sin­gle in the late ’50s to prove it. Then, go­ing solo in the early ’60s, Dion was re­spon­si­ble for three of the tough­est songs of the era: “Ruby Baby,” “Runaround Sue,” and, most bitchen of all, “The Wan­derer.”

His record la­bel, Columbia, had other plans for Dion. They saw this hand­some Ital­ian singer as some kind of lounge singer, a po­ten­tial mon­ster of easy lis­ten­ing. But Dion wouldn’t go for that. He’d de­vel­oped a love for the mu­sic of Bob Dy­lan and a friend­ship with Columbia pro­ducer Tom Wil­son, who was re­spon­si­ble for Dy­lan’s Bring­ing It All

Back Home. Wil­son agreed to pro­duce an al­bum by Dion and his new band, The Wan­der­ers. But Columbia wasn’t quite sure what to do with the al­bum. The com­pany re­leased a few sin­gles, in­clud­ing the ti­tle song, and through the years, some of the songs have drib­bled out on var­i­ous Dion com­pi­la­tions. But the ac­tual al­bum was shelved, never re­leased for pub­lic con­sump­tion un­til now. Have I men­tioned lately how much I hate the mu­sic in­dus­try?

The aura of Dy­lan and folk-rock in gen­eral are pal­pa­ble here. There are three Dy­lan songs on the record. One is a pass­able cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Then there’s “Farewell,” an ob­scure one from the early ’60s. But I pre­fer the tracks that es­chew the jan­gly, Byrdsy sound in fa­vor of a harder-edged High­way 61 Re­vis­ited blues­rock sound. By far the best Dy­lan song is an­other ob­scure one, “Baby, I’m in the Mood for You,” which Dion makes his own. And even bet­ter than that is a Dion orig­i­nal, “Two-Ton Feather.” That one plus the ti­tle song are the best ex­am­ples of Dy­lan’s in­flu­ence on Dion’s song­writ­ing and The Wan­der­ers’ sound.

But that’s not to say the more folkie style doesn’t suit Dion well. He sang an­other song here writ­ten by a ma­jor ’60s folk-scene fig­ure. “I Can’t Help But Won­der Where I’m Bound” is one of singer Tom Pax­ton’s great­est songs. And Dion rips into the heart of it with his emo­tional per­for­mance. Check out www.nor­ton­records.com.

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