EASTON, PA—The conundrum of seeing Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Famer Dion is that authentic first-generation rock’n’roll like this demands a certain response that may be considered anti-social by most of the very audience sitting in their seats politely watching the show. My contention is that it would not be inappropriate, for instance, to jump wildly out of your seat, scream at the top of your lungs and run up and down the aisle—with or without your clothing—waving your arms in the air in abject joy and freedom.
Seventy-one year-old Dion, amazingly enough, has retained his gangsta Bronx cool, his sense of street humor and 100% of his incredible voice and guitar playing. As one of the original architects of rock’n’roll, he’s seen it all and done it all, to the point of escaping death itself by giving 17-year old Ritchie Valens his seat on the airplane that also killed Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. Dion didn’t mind that freezing ice-cold bus with no heat driving through a brutal Midwest winter. So when he and his crack band do Holly’s “Rave On,” it’s the real thing. So when he does Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” you know he knew the late Cochran. It’s like getting to see Muddy Waters or Hank Williams.
When the band leaves and Dion sits alone on the stage with his guitar to sing from his two blues album gems, Bronx In Blue and Son Of Skip James, he knows it’s over the head of the casual listener so he couches it within a joke. “John Lee Hooker is the only dude I know who can make so much with one chord,” and by way of explanation plays a note-perfect Hooker boogie that not only emulates the late master, but transcends it like John Hammond, Jr. does. When the joke wears off, and the intermittent laughter dies down, it’s almost as if he’s embarrassed by his perfection and stops the song three-quarters through and says, “or something like that” to polite applause before giving them what they want with Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl” which they promptly go crazy for.
When the band returns and they launch into “King Of The New York Streets,” the 20-something Dion magically re-emerges and the band becomes an equal to Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, complete with roaring saxman.
But these songs—“The Wanderer,” “Donna Donna The Prima Donna,” “Teenager In Love,” “Drip Drop” and so many others—represent true rock’n’roll DNA. So what do you do when you’re fit to burst and the nice elderly gentleman sitting next to you is not moving…not a toe or finger tap, not a muscle? Well, what you do, so as not to draw attention to yourself, is to internalize. Akin to transcendental meditation, the joy goes to your knees, mostly. I’m sure the kindly gentleman next to me noticed my damn legs rockin’ like Ray Charles under his piano.
Soon all the original rock’n’roll artists will be dead, the original audience for such also dead. Then it will be left to the ‘60s artists who greatly took from Elvis and Little Richard and the Everlys and Chuck and Fats. But then they’ll be dead too. And so will their audience. So when the first two generations of rock’n’rollers are no longer with us, the records will still be played, and devotees will perform it with note-for-note sincerity. And audiences—like this one—will love and cherish it like they do a beautiful piece of art hanging on a wall of a museum.