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The John Stewart Collection—Shelves Five and Six

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(Image from the inside of the CD insert for Havana—The CD)
[Art by John Stewart]
Years of Long Letters from a Good Friend
(2002-Now)

What we didn't know— as the calendar rolled into the third year starting with a "2"— was the scope of the eruption that was building. Oh, the signs were there, all right. It got really, really quiet. There were reissues of classics that had only been available to fans who bought the cassettes years and years before, and some new treatments of older material to try to help his nation through tough times.

Then came a small live album—A Night at Jimmy Dukes. Around the archive we didn't get it. Commentary on it is still being withheld until there have been a couple of thousand miles shared with it. The conclusion is starting to form that maybe it won't drop cleanly into our mental machinery without working backward from Havana, and we're going to see where that takes us before anything gets written here.

It's really too soon after these releases to say anything for sure. With that in mind, some preliminary thoughts can be shared.

Havana—The CD may just mark the major-label emergence of a new, classic American voice. Americans have always loved distinctive voices—voices that spoke to the roots of our strange poly-culture. Louie Armstrong. Jimmy Durante. Billy Holiday. Josh White. Jack Teagarden. Ray Charles. Johnny Cash. Joe Cocker...(You don't think he's American? Put on his version of Randy Newman's "Leave Your Hat On"...really loud. We adopted him. That counts...just like John Martyn...) Martha Raye. John Hiatt. Eartha Kitt. John Lee Hooker... Do you see where we're going here, kind reader? As a people, we want voices that we can get a grip on...we want to have some artists around that give us a whole lot more than lean meat when they stand at a microphone.

John Stewart has always done this.  But there's a whole 'nother thing going on here now, friends. Check it out.

And then stand back just a little bit when this whole musical train we've been riding since the late 1960's blows gently sky-high and lands back in a brand new place on the island of American music that flies the flag of Stewart...

Secret Tapes CD

2002 Neon Dreams release on compact disk
Produced by John Stewart

 (Cover image is from the CD cover insert) 

These CDs contain material previously available only on "privately issued" cassettes from 1986 and 1988. Actually, it's a little more. Even if you found the cassettes and kept them safe through famine, flood and forgetfulness (and underheated wood-hauling trucks in Wisconsin) this 2-CD set deserves a listen. It's not exactly a reissue...

As John Stewart has said, "Well, we took them into the studio and cleaned them up a little..." Well, ok...as far as that goes... Like Wires From the Bunker and The Runner, there's a terrific backstory here that is being vigorously pursued. So far, all that is known is that it involves more "lost tapes," pool storage in a warehouse somewhere near the Great Lakes by a company closing far-flung facilities, Paul Rybolt in some strange Patrick Kenzie moment...sliding through the night with an envelope containing $500 in cash, and Tom DeLisle in an "Indiana DeLisle and the Temple of Gloom" epic involving dust, strong odors and a hat. Sean Connery may be in there somewhere...we're working on it.

If you are already a John Stewart fan, here are the missing chapters, redone and done up clean. It's essential to your collection. If you are becoming a John Stewart fan, this should be about the sixth or seventh CD you buy, because it will open up windows into his work you won't find elsewhere, and, as always, song placement and sequencing are important. If you aren't a fan yet, it easily stands on its own, but it would be a darn shame to miss the context into which it fits. Decide for yourself.

Now if we could just figure out the graphics...

The songs: 

Disc One
1.   Home from the Stars
2.   Spirit in the Light
3.   Seven Times the Wind
4.   Illegals (Live)
5.   The City
6.   Jenny at the Wheel
7.   Prison Without Walls
8.   Going Home (Homeward Looking Bird)
9.   The River
10. China Sky
11. Hearts of the Highlands
12. Summer Sun's Cold
13. Justiceville
14. The Children

Disc Two
1.   Grace of Rain
2.   Seven Angels
3.   Irresistible Targets
4.   Quarter Moon on the Golden Gate
5.   The Heartless
6.   I Could Have Been a Runner
7.   Call the Women Home
8.   Sweet Dreams
9.   Women
10. Tears of the Sun

 

The 2002 Neon Dreams Records release of the Secret Tapes CD is now out-of-print.

  
 


The Runner

2002 Neon Dreams Music release on compact disk
Produced by John Stewart

 (Cover image is from the CD cover insert) 

This is an instrumental album suitable for jogging with a headset that was evidently first recorded in the mid-1980s, but remained unreleased until the CD issue in 2002.

Terry Ransom— aka The Banjoguy (Big Hat, No Cattle)—was the executive producer for The Runner. He is a 20+ year friend of John Stewart and has provided us with part of the backstory on this one:

"…The Runner was originally intended as a promotional piece for a running shoe company. I finally convinced John to release it as a CD a couple of years back, but we couldn't find the master tapes. I eventually found a cassette that had been hiding in my basement since about 1984. I now own the 16-channel Macke mixer John originally used to mix Airdream Believer and Rough Sketches. I ended up using the Macke to remix and digitize the material for release. The cover art is a photocopy from the original mock-up and the track listings are in John's handwriting from the back of the "basement tape." Paul Rybolt got the CD released and the legacy continues..."

It isn't just for jogging.

George Gobel used to say there were days when he felt like the world was a tuxedo...and he was a pair of brown shoes. There are still days when it seems that everyone else is leading their life...while some of us are chasing ours. If you ever find yourself spending a day following your appointment book around town, from one endless meeting to another, put a copy of The Runner in the console of your car. Give yourself a small gift. Play it between stops.

You may just find that the heartbeat of the rhythm track is doing something nice for your own life-force. You may even find yourself being asked, in the last meeting of the day, why you look so fresh. You don't have to tell them.

If Centennial (American Sketches) is the soundtrack for a driving tour of the American West, The Runner works really well as a backdrop for driving through the chunks of America where you don't see a whole lot of eagles.

A small warning may be in order. This album may cause you to reconsider your usual choices of routes through the city. You might find yourself avoiding the freeways, and using lesser-known routes that are a little calmer and a lot prettier. If you live in the Twin Cities you could find that you can't hear the first track without seeing a blond, tousle-headed 3-year-old on a brand new tricycle, laughing his way gleefully through the spring sunshine on the East River Road. 

Of course, that could also happen if you use it for jogging...

The songs: 

1.   Warmup Jog
2.   Stretching
3.  Jogging Suite (1)
4.  Jogging Suite (2)
5.   Cool Down Jog
6.   Stretching

(Image is from the back of the CD insert)

The 2002 Neon Dreams Music CD release of The Runner is now out-of-print.

   

 

A Night at Jimmy Duke's—
    Johnny and the Nasty Britches


2002 Neon Dreams Music release on compact disk
Produced by John Stewart

 (Cover image is from the CD cover insert) 

"Johnny and the Nasty Britches" is John Stewart, Dave Batti and Dennis Kenmore. This album was recorded live and released very recently. It needs to be taken out on the road for a couple of long trips before it can get the commentary it deserves.
The songs: 

1.   Introduction by Jimmy Duke
2.   Heart of a Kid
3.   Cooler Water, Higher Ground
4.   Waltz of the Crazy Moon
5.   How Did I Get Away With That Song?
6.   Missouri Birds
7.   Intro
8.   When My Love Was Here
9.   Can't Look Back
10. Material World
11. Chilly Winds
12. "Dave's" Been Drinking
13. Baby Break
14. Dreamers on the Rise
15. Dead Snakes (featuring "Dave" Batti)
16. Ticket to the Stars
17. China Skies
18. Midnight Train
19. Mother Country

The 2002 Neon Dreams Music CD release of Live at Jimmy Duke's is now out-of-print.

   
   

The Americans—Plus

2002 release on compact disk
Produced by John Stewart

 (Cover image is from the  CD insert) 

The Americans—Plus was released before Ground Zero was cleared. It is an artist of the media of sentiment and memory trying to make sense out of insanity. It is a creator taking a long look at destruction. It's a reflective reconsideration of material that reaches all the way back to Signals Through the Glass and adds something new, because something new was needed to complete it. It is a meticulously sequenced and respectful gift to the people he loves. It helped. A lot...

The songs: 

1.   Ticket to the Stars
2.   I Remember America
3.   Pirates of Stone County Road
4.   Draft Age
5.   Hero From the War/Oldest Living Son
6.   Unchained Beast
7.   Rivers of Light
8.   Survivors
9.   Mother Country
10. The Americans

The 2002 CD release of The Americans...Plus is now out-of-print.

 


Havana (New Release on CD)


2003 Appleseed Recordings release on compact disk
Produced by John Stewart

 (Cover image is from the CD cover insert) 

Havana is a 62-minute masterwork.

This album is another seamless and seasoned cycle of caring wit, telling truths and tender remembrance, complete within the circle of the disk, but reaching out of it to our world. A lot of people will find themselves waiting a bit between trips through the album, to let the experience be savored. John Stewart draws from roots and names and references that have informed the patchwork quilt of our music, but he has given us much more.

The clearest comparison within the body of his own work is to Punch the Big Guy, from 1987. There have been a number of must-be-experienced landmarks on the island of his music since then, and there were many, many before. But, like Punch the Big Guy, this album comes after a period of deceptive major-label quiet—seething with creative activity just below the surface— and reaches back to a heavy skein of the work he had been sharing with his fans and friends. Havana also shares the feeling of that earlier album, as if he is saying, "I'm still worried about you, and I'm still worried about me—but we're older now and when we're taking stock I think we can do it a little more softly, and carefully count our blessings as well..."

Havana is the seismic musical statement we have awaited. Once again he has given us new ground. But it was not opened to hikers until a meadow had formed, and clear waters ran quiet between green banks and climbing trees. And once again, John Stewart has given us a gift in the spring...

More than anything else, Havana is an inspired and informed statement of faith in his listeners' humanity and capacity to reach their own truths, while traveling the subtle landscapes of watercolor-washed words and carefully etched instrumentation he has given them.

But what raises Havana above artisanship and craft?

The voice.

John Stewart's use of his vocal instrument on Havana is classic Americana. He has tailored the timbre, the tone, the enunciation and pitch of his vocal delivery to the lyrics and message of each individual song. His pronunciation of individually significant words carries messages. The position of that voice in the front-to-back depth of the production mix of each song is precise, and varies within the song itself, reflecting and enhancing the lyrics. This is a master teller using every carefully polished tool in his bag in its exactly perfect way.

The voice of the other musical instruments is meticulous, as well. The sound is huge. It demands to be played on the open road, with a window down and the volume up, even when the songs are quiet. And yet one begins to realize that all that size is being projected from spare, careful, individual notes. There is nothing extravagant in the instrumentation here. Instead, it is minimal, essential, economical—and yet lushly layered and filled with surprises—and you may just discover you are somehow hearing things that weren't quite played.

The "voice" in the lyrics and point of view has never been more focused. Like Punch the Big Guy, this album is a love letter to the best in us...painstakingly crafted and nuanced, in a way that is familiar and yet startlingly fresh.

Please do not short-change yourself on your first listen to Havana. Don't play it through your computer speakers, or even on a CD-ROM drive, and don't play it when you are rushed or trying to do something else at the same time. This is a careful and tender gift—like a drawing from a child or delicate artistry from the time-gnarled hands of a mastercrafter. Give it to yourself in front of a wood fire. Or on one of those winding two lane roads that lead to the heart of America...

You are, after all, that special.

The very best of the long letters from John Stewart that tell us so have always come just when we needed them.

Don't leave this one out there under the leaves...

The songs: 
[All lyrics quoted are copyrighted to John Stewart]

1.   Davey on the Internet

"...Download, upload, PC's on the overload
Davey on the Internet talking to me.
Netscape, escape, tomorrow is out of date
Davey's on the Internet and he's talking to me.
Yeah, Davey on the Internet, talk, talk, talking
Davey on the Internet is talking to me..."

Right in this first song, John Stewart has laid out the time and pace for the album. This infectious, witty sally places the whole song cycle firmly in its time. The beat of the song and cadence of the lyrics speak volumes about the pace of our lives and the bombardment of information and communication we now view as normal.  

2.   Who Stole the Soul of Johnny Dreams
3.   One-Eyed Joe
4.   Starman
5.   Dogs in the Bed

"...All night I toss and turn, impossible to sleep
As I watch my life burn, no reason to count sheep.
Oh, I have miles to go and promises to keep.

How can I dream at night, when all the dreams come true?
How can I dream at night, if I don't dream of you?
How can I scream at night, a rhapsody in blue?
Did you hear what I said?

There's dogs in the bed..."

This is a hit song. Now to find the radio station that is playing it in frequent rotation. It crosses all the playlist lines and categories. In a proper world, Tony Bennett (and a lot of other people) will release their covers of this instant classic in a couple of months. The lyrics are a fascinating puzzle, setting inner questioning against the outer calm of a stable relationship and the blessings of four-legged philosophers. It's another John Stewart song for familiar lovers— somewhere in a sequence following "Redemption for the Man"— that will have them talking about exactly what it means in the real world of their relationship. So what's wrong with that? It also contains one of those lyrical "hooks" that Stewart has so often given us...perhaps the best one ever.

6.   Rock 'n' Roll Nation
7.   Cowboy in the Distance
8.   I Want to be Elvis
9.   Star in the Black Sky Shining
10. Turn of the Century (Diana)
11. Miracle Girl
12. Lucky Old Sun
13. Waltz of the Crazy Moon
14. Rally Down the Night
15. Waiting for Castro to Die

(Image is from the inside of the CD insert)

We offer the 2003 Appleseed Recordings CD release of Havana for $16.00 US, plus shipping and handling.]

 

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The Ballads 

2003 Neon Dreams Music release on compact disk
Produced by John Stewart

 (Image is from the CD cover insert) 

"Ballads"—and memories of your choice...

Fairlane hardtops with 735s on the front and 850s in back, parked by spring's river... AM radio with a reverb unit added, under the back shelf next to the speaker... Johnny Mathis and "Blue Gardenia" riding 50,000 watts of clear channel from the Sounds of the City on KSTP... Doris Day and "Night Life" on Twin Cities Satellite Seven from KCCR in Pierre... Ray Charles and "Georgia" in the steam of nights south of the line...

These days, you don't hear that many ballads on radio. Here's a serving of them that— at first glance— looks like an album of reissues serious fans can bypass, because they already have the songs on their shelves.

Not exactly.

This is another crafted song sequence, laid out by John Stewart himself. Once again, he has opened the door to his musical processes. This time he also gives us a look at how he defines a "ballad." He makes his choices from the songs that have come to him over the last 40 years plus. If you listen hard, you can catch just a bit of what he hears in his mind's ear, as one song moves smoothly into another.

"Smoothly" is not a carelessly chosen word.

They've been "tweaked" a little, folks. Gain between tracks has been meticulously re-engineered. The production is uniformly crisp and clean, especially considering the wide range of stored media drawn from. There are even a couple of production "insider" jokes left in, for fans to find themselves. The stereo mix and channel spread are intriguing. What does all that mean? Simple. If you have a three-speaker setup, you just might want to sit down in the "sweet spot" for some of these.

Because even if you've heard these songs before, you haven't heard them like this. And if you haven't heard them before—it would be hard to find a better setting to meet them for the first time.

Stewart's songs have always had staying power because they were so deep in content and meaning—because they involved such a rich commerce between the artist's "voice" and the listener's personal experience and references. Listening to him is still more like old-fashioned radio than television. It is not a one-way or passive experience.

Whether you are an old or new listener, try to arrange to really listen to this album the first time—to gift it to yourself, without distractions. After "Wind on the River" turns out to be the perfect start, "White Babies and Roses" is one of those that shows us some new faces in this setting. On Rocket Roy, it often seemed like the "long straight highway" that started in the stables of Harlem ran through desperate hours and dim hotel rooms with one black-and-white eye—a turnpike for lemmings waiting for the man and morning. In this mix, it somehow becomes a road back—past the five-ring circuses of the world, leading straight to the healing of the mother waters... Perhaps to a horse-training ring in a meadow—and a lady who sits on the top fence-rail... Maybe we missed that the first time, or maybe we're just wrong. Maybe that's what putting them in this order is all about? It's worth a listen to find out...

The album begins and ends with songs from the very early 1980's. In between, there are nearly constant ten- to fifteen-year jumps back and forth in time between the succeeding songs (in two cases, nearly 40). You won't notice until later, even if you know every one of them, because this sequence of polished gems never, ever, misses a gear. The internal cycles are fascinating. Every performance setting is represented, from live sets to layered and textured "big-studio" arrangements. And as you travel back and forth on these trails of years— hearing his vocals reflect your changes back at you—the things most striking are the constancy of this old friend, and his gifts of new things within the old—found within familiar things in new settings.

It ends perfectly, with John Stewart and Buffy Ford singing pure and amazing arrangements of "Price of the Fire" and "Same Old Heart" that each pick up something extra in this pairing.

Whether you've bolted a deck under the dash of an old car or have a player built into a new one, take this disc for a ride...the two of you. But if the car winds up parked by those rivers of spring, don't be too surprised if you wind up just listening to the music and the night and talking... After all, you've made it this far and some of these tracks have been right there— along for the ride—even if you are only finding them now. Sometimes we really do need to be reminded that "everything old" can be new again...but maybe a little smarter this time?

One of the critical tests some of us apply to his new albums is, "Could this one qualify as the very first John Stewart album I would give to someone to introduce him to them?" The standards applied are vicious. This one might just get over the hurdle, depending on the person...

Now it needs to have some miles put on it. More later...

The songs: 
[Writing and recording dates are based on preliminary research. No session credits available at this time.]

1.   Wind on the River
               
[Written and Recorded approx. 1979-1980]
2.   White Babies and Roses
               
[Written and Recorded approx. 1992-1993]
3.   When My Love Was Here
   
             [Written approx. 1960-61, Recorded approx. 2002]
4.   Walk on the Moon
   
             [Written and Recorded approx. 1999-2000]
5.   Dreamers on the Rise
               
[Written approx. 1982-1983, Recorded approx. 1994-1995]
6.   The Man Who Would Be King
               
[Written and Recorded approx. 1991-1992]
7.   If You Should Remember Me
               
[Written and Recorded approx. 1999-2000]
8.   Jenny Was a Dream Girl
               
[Written and Recorded approx. 1981-1982]
9.   Golden Gate
               
[Written and Recorded approx. 1981-1982]
10. Cowboy in the Distance
               
[Written and Recorded approx. 1999-2000]
11. The Price of the Fire
               
[Written and Recorded approx. 1985-1987]
12. Same Old Heart
               
[Written and Recorded approx. 1979-1982]

The 2003 CD release of The Ballads is now out-of-print.

 

Earth Rider
    The Essential, Classic Stewart 1964-1979


2003 Raven Records compilation release on compact disk
Compiled by Glenn A. Baker and Peter Shillito with
    assistance of Kevin Mueller and Ian McFarlane

 (Image is from the CD cover insert...originally inside gatefold LP cover for Cannons in the Rain) Original photo by W. Patrick Harper.

Some of us were lucky enough as kids to have an auntie who collected oddments. When the grown-ups were still talking over cards and coffee— after your book had gotten old and the fidgets had set in—you could lose yourself in the battleship cribbage boards and other mysteries to be found in her living room. Like her sets of endlessly nested boxes...

There's a point at which you quit just listening to John Stewart's music, and begin to explore it. When you figure out how to take the top off that first musical "box" and find another surprise inside, you have started down a long trail marked by the gifts he has wrapped within his albums and the songs he has fought so hard to give so freely. You want to know more. And if you discover there are a couple of boxes in the sequence that have gone missing, you will be very, very alert to any hints about where they might be found.

There have been stories, rumors and hints about a couple of "lost" albums for a long time. One of them was supposedly to be called Earth Rider, and was made after California Bloodlines. Legend had it that a number of the songs wound up on Willard, but legend never said how many or which ones, exactly. When some of us first heard of an Australian project to be called Earth Rider, based around a recording that had gone walkabout from that time, you can only imagine our interest.

This is not the "lost" album, although its roots certainly lie in the story of that particular missing nested box.

It is as much a tribute as a compilation, and Glenn Baker tells the story in over 14 insert pages of carefully researched writing. Baker talks of "...bouncing around the [Australian] outback...with a battery operated record player and a stack of second-hand singles [and] ...knowing the sound of Stewart before I knew the Beatles..." In this well-told tale, Baker also recounts finding an album that never came out. "Well at least not officially. Originally titled Earth Rider it was sent out without John's knowledge on a cassette as a publisher's demo with 'January Music Demos' scrawled across it; which is how I came upon it in the offices of Festival Music in Sydney."

The title has been used for this album. Someday we may all hear the story of what happened to the cassette and what songs were on it other than "Armstrong," but not here.

What is here is pretty special in its own right.

The album includes two songs long unavailable on compact disc: "Signals to Ludi" from Signals Through the Glass, and the single version of "Wheatfield Lady" which also appeared on the UK vinyl issue Forgotten Songs of Some Old Yesterday. The compilation concentrates on the first seven years of John Stewart's career, with 20 of the 24 songs from 1968-1975. Interestingly, it includes more songs from Cannons in the Rain than from California Bloodlines, an indication of the careful thought that has gone into the list of inclusions. 

While there is, obviously, going to be some overlap with the 2-disk Wrasse compilation Gold, the care in choices from Stewart's catalogue is also reflected in the fact that over half the songs on Earth Rider do not appear on the Wrasse double issue. And for some of us they are very special. "Some Lonesome Picker," "Daydream Believer," "Little Road and a Stone to Roll," as well as the tracks from the 1964 Kingston Trio album Time to Think, and from Signals Through the Glass all speak strongly of the fact that this album was assembled by fans.

There is a little something here for everyone. It would make an excellent choice for introducing someone to the artist, as an alternative to the double-disk issue Gold. Hard core Stewart fans will find digital versions of songs that are either out of print in that medium or have never been issued on CD. Collectors will find ample material for on-going debates about what absolutely should be on any compilation from his early career in these choices made "down under."

And we know a little more about something missing in the rich flow of mail from this old friend. Around here, we like this one a lot. And we would really like to know what else was on that cassette...

The songs: 

1.   Song for a Friend
(from the Kingston Trio's Time to Think)
2.   Signals to Ludi
(from Signals Through the Glass)
3.   California Bloodlines
(from California Bloodlines)
4.   Razorback Woman
(...same as previous)
5.   Some Lonesome Picker
(...same as previous)
6.   Mother Country
(...same as previous)
7.   Willard
(from Willard)
8.   Clack Clack
(...same as previous)
9.   Earth Rider
(...same as previous)
10. Daydream Believer
(from The Lonesome Picker Rides Again)
11. Little Road and a Stone to Roll
(...same as previous)
12. Kansas Rain
(from Sunstorm)
13. All Time Woman
(from Cannons in the Rain)
14. Anna on a Memory
(...same as previous)
15. Armstrong
(...same as previous)
16. Chilly Winds
(...same as previous)
17. Road Away
(...same as previous)
18. Wheatfield Lady
(Single—also on the UK LP Forgotten Songs of Some Old Yesterday)
19. July You're a Woman
(from The Phoenix Concerts)
20. You Can't Look Back
(...same as previous)
21. Let the Big Horse Run
(from Wingless Angels)
22. 18 Wheels
(from Fire in the Wind)
23. Gold
(from Bombs Away Dream Babies)
24. Midnight Wind
(...same as previous)

The Raven Records CD release of Earth Rider 1964-1979 has now gone out of print, after stocking was delayed while Raven Records remanufactured the disk. The first edition had a fascinating anomaly, with a different Stewart song on the disk than on the track listing. It would seem that any Earth Rider project must have some mysteries included. We have found a few copies in the secondary market and offer them for $40.00 US plus S & H. There is no way to know which version you will get. We reserve the right to limit or refund.


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Songs to Drive By

2003 Neon Dreams Music release on compact disk
Produced by John Stewart

 (Image is from the CD cover insert) 

There's a spot on the highway out of town where the everyday ends and the road begins. It's usually about a quarter of a tank into the trip. For some of us it's been better than 25 years since we drove past that spot without John Stewart along for the ride. His songs and long highways are inextricably bound up with big chunks of our lives and memories. It's a little hard to explain, but he has always given us a lot more than just sounds to fill driving time...the songs have become part of the experience. They have somehow made the trips a little truer...a little richer. There's been some sort of exchange between us in that special environment...rolling through America...

The sound of fat tires hitting the expansion joints is different when your shaving gear or makeup is in a bag in the trunk, along with some old jeans and a spare pair of boots. As that flap-splat rhythm picks up, and the numbers grow on the speed limit signs, a lot of us find our everyday lists fading away. Here on the Northern Plains, we joke that the real trip begins at the third horse outside of town. That's about where your car eases into "big dog" mode and you re-adjust the seat and sometimes you can actually feel something lift up off your shoulders. The light can take on a different quality. Your thoughts are a little clearer. Your sense of possibilities wakes up and rolls the windows down a tad...and the music up a little...

John Stewart knows these things. Read the liner notes: "You've got to listen to music when you drive; it's in the constitution." He has chosen twelve songs from the hundreds, tweaked them a little, mixed some truth into the spaces between the carefully ordered tracks and then quietly offered us an album to slide in right about the time we start looking for that fourth horse. "I've put this collection together of some of my songs that may do it for you."

It did it for us.

But note the title. If you are looking for 12 John Stewart songs to play while steering your car at a high rate of speed, this isn't it. You could make a compilation like that, with "Bring It On Home" and "Swift Lizard" and "18 Wheels" and a lot of others, and just about guarantee yourself a speeding ticket or two. Instead, he has laid out a sequence for driving...for remembering and sorting and figuring things out in that special environment with windows and an engine and "...the towns or countryside slowly gliding past my window." And he put "Wheels of Thunder" and "18 Wheels" in there as if to remind you what he can do to your throttle foot...

This ride starts in the early '80s and tells us right up front—with the first track—that this is going to be about more than just traveling somewhere. There are some ten and twenty-year jumps between the tracks, but the flow of music and insight is so smooth you won't really notice. Everyone will find their own gifts. The mix is that rich.

If you don't know these songs, there is an experience waiting for you here that is just plain enviable. And if you do know them, it is just about guaranteed you will find some surprising things that have been hiding in there all these years, waiting for you and this special "artist's cut."

If you are a fledgling John Stewart fan, is this a good addition to a growing collection? Yes. It will deepen your awareness of just how much this man likes and respects you. It will lead you to the classic and neglected albums like Trancas and The Secret Tapes. It will surely fuel your fondness and appreciation for the artist. It will take you for a very personal ride down your next long highway and show you what we mean by an exchange, because this is two-way media, not just road fill.

If you are a full-blown John Stewart FAN, do you want this one? Definitely. And you will know it from the first note of the first song, because when you hear the opening of "It Ain't the Gold," you'll know that, once again, the Plainspoken Poet has laid one out just for you, and this trip is going to be about journeys in every sense...not just getting somewhere in a car.

This one is very special.

The songs: [Writing and recording dates are based on preliminary research. No session credits available at this time.] 

1.   It Ain't the Gold
       
[Written and Recorded approx. 1983-1984]
2.   China Skies
       
[Written and Recorded approx. 1985-1986]
3.   Renegade Rising
       
[Written and Recorded approx. 1999-2000]
4.   Sweet Dreams
       
[Written and Recorded approx. 1986-1988]
5.   Irresistible Targets
       
[Written and Recorded approx. 1986-1988]
6.   Somewhere Down the Line
        [Written and Recorded approx. 1977-1980]
7.   Wheels of Thunder
       
[Written and Recorded approx. 1977-1980]
8.   Ticket to the Stars
       
[Written and Recorded approx. 1985-1987]
9.   Girl Down the River
       
[Written and Recorded approx. 1981-1984]
10. 18 Wheels
       
[Written and Recorded approx. 1975-1978]
11. Neon Road
       
[Written and Recorded approx. 1995-1998]
12. Endless Roads and Northern Lights
       
[Written and Recorded approx. 1999-2000]

The 2003 CD release of Songs to Drive By is now out-of-print.

 


Tanforan

2003 Neon Dreams Music release on compact disk
Produced by John Stewart

 (Image is from the CD cover insert) 

This is a deceptively small album. It has a huge "backstory."

In 2003, the rest of the country finally caught up to the place John Stewart started—the paddocks and stalls and hot-walking circles of California race tracks.

He grew up in the working areas of horse tracks in California, where his father was a trainer. The images and rhythms of harness and thoroughbred racing have informed his music from the first album on these shelves to this most recent. Horses have played both a real and symbolic role in his lyrics—from Sweetheart on Parade in "Mother Country" through Secretariat in "Let the Big Horse Run" to the epic combination of "Wild Horse Road/All the Brave Horses." Equine references have brought depth to the brush strokes of his lyrics from the horseman in "Ride Stone Blind," all of whose friends "seem to live outside the law," to the "hard living bunch...sleeping in the tack room" in "Hard Times For the Monkey Boy.

In 2002, people began passing Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit from hand to hand. It was so good that you found a friend who hadn't read it and gave it to them— knowing it would never return because they were going to do exactly the same thing. At the time someone said, "This lady has done, in 560 pages, what John Stewart does in four minutes." And they were right.

The book was like a John Stewart song with almost all the details filled in and the themes expanded from a snapshot to a small diorama. It had self-made men, strong women, everyday heroes... and they all revolved around an unlikely, under-sized, strong-willed, damaged horse with an awkward gait, a sly attitude and the heart of a giant. It was history from the bottom up—the stories of people who aren't usually in books—written so well you could smell the scenes. Around here, it was like a vindication of our goal and point of view. We loved it.

Then they made the movie.

At the end of the film people stood up and applauded in theatres all over the country. Underdogs became the topic of conversations over beer... and coffee... and cocktails and canapés... Horatio Alger went to the races and everybody got it. This real story of two- and four-legged losers and outsiders emerging from tragedy, abuse, and misunderstanding to fight for a dream—in the bright sunlight of public view and with little besides stubbornness and courage—touched places some of us had forgotten.

We heard that John Stewart saw it seven times. And it's as if he realized that the hero of the book had been moved to the periphery of the movie. The unfocused people whose lives came clear in Hillenbrand's words, with Seabiscuit as the lens, had somehow taken over the story. It's as if the muses whispered in his ear and ushered him to that terrible, wonderful and lonely place where the creators of great art must work. "Tanforan," they must have murmured to him... What happened next is pure Stewart.

He let a mix of his biggest fans and total strangers listen in as he brought his mind and his voice and his hands and his history into the creative fight to fill an empty place in the world with a six-minute epic in music and verse. "Tanforan" put the horse back as the lens for a dense mix of mystery and metaphor that only this plainspoken poet could create. 

Each August, in Scottsdale, Arizona, he hosts a fantasy camp for amateur folk singers who get to be the third member of a group with 2/3 of the 1960s Kingston Trio...he and Nick Reynolds. The audience is drawn from the 500-member-plus, on-line "family" called Bloodlines that has formed around his solo career, together with their guests and the general public. 

He sang the song on two consecutive nights, from handmade charts on a music stand, sharing its evolution and changing form. He let people see into that private and perilous space where art becomes real. He trusted others with this child of his craft at its most fragile. In his spoken introductions, he talked about his memories of mucking out stalls and walking horses to cool them down safely, and of the care given to a boy by the "rough guys" of the horse world. He did it under spotlights, standing alone.

From Arizona, he went into a studio and layered the sound, adding a banjo track (among others) so delicate that it sneaks up on your ear and then sticks around after the song is over. Then, without a pause, he took it out on the road—sharing that solo studio mix on homemade CDs with audiences on an East Coast tour—and playing the song toward maturity over the sound of dart-board competitions and dinner orders....under spotlights, standing alone.

And while he was closing circles and starting themes back around them again, he revisited songs reaching all the way back to the first solo album—California Bloodlines—and recast them for today. The last eight tracks on the album are some of the finest (and most carefully engineered) live performances in years, featuring Dave Batti, Dennis Kenmore and John Hoke in support of Stewart's artistry. A few months ago most of us would have argued vehemently that there was no way that songs like "July You're a Woman" and "Wind on the River" could ever be improved from their original form. Now?? They're classics this way, too. If these live tracks whet your appetite for more, you can also get them (with the exception of "July...") in their complete concert setting on Dark 30, the next album below.

The sequencing of this album is superb. It flows like spiced honey from one track to another—as you're led gently through a landscape that lets you pick your own point of view—and builds steadily until "One-Eyed Joe" knocks you out of your chair. The song, in this live version, is a giant ending to a terrific album. Around here, we're having trouble hearing it without seeing John Cash leaned forward in his chair, with that crooked grin of his, keeping time...somewhere up the valley.

So that's where Tanforan—the song and the album—is right now...a work in progress. Together with an inside joke for his Bloodliner "family" that can be enjoyed by anyone, and eight live performances from earlier in 2003 that show us what he's been thinking about some of the classic songs from the early years of his career. They're also "works in progress." 

So are we.

And some of us can hardly wait for the next long letter...

The songs:

1.   Tanforan
2.   Art Faller's Land
3.   July, You're a Woman (Ballad)
4.   Moonlight Dream
5.   China Sky
6.   Wind on the River
7.   It Ain't the Gold
8.   Renegade Rising
9.   Dreamers on the Rise
10. One-Eyed Joe "Live"

The 2003 CD release of Tanforan is now out-of-print.

   


That Night at Dark 30
    Even the band had fun.


2003/4 Neon Dreams release on two compact disks
Produced by John Stewart

 (Cover image is from the CD cover insert) 

There are now at least three, absolutely and unarguably classic, live albums by John Stewart with a backing band.

In 1974, it was The Phoenix Concerts Live. 1990 brought us Neon Beach Live. And 2004 is the year of Dark 30 (Live). Yes, it's that good.

Make no mistake. The albums from John Stewart's solo concerts are extraordinary, and the live albums with his long-time friend Dave Batti on bass are priceless for their nuance and depth. But every once in a while what we really want to do is load a live one up, warn the neighbors, find the sweet spot between the speakers, get into a position that's good for an hour or so, crank the volume up to nine and just get blown away by Stewart and the "big" group. If you are the same, this is the one you have been awaiting.

Use an easy chair. This is 21 tracks in 99 nearly-seamless minutes and you will not want to miss a second.

Once again, Stewart has given careful thought to his fans and listeners. He had at least 14 tracks from this concert that had not been released in any form. He had some that had been released with slightly different tweaks on Tanforan and other works in progress. He could easily have put out a 12 or 14 track CD of just the unreleased material at the normal price, and without a lot of extra work on production. Instead, he gave us what we would have wanted if given a choice—nearly the complete show on TWO disks. And for a few dollars more than a single disk issue.

Great decision! 

Comparisons are tricky, but this double CD has been played nearly non-stop around here for quite a while, and the non-Stewart reference it most brings to mind for some of us is the Allen Lomax field recordings from the '30s and '40s, when some of the most important things in American music were happening on front porches and in little bars and clubs...away from the Major Media Trends of THAT day. Oh, sure, the sound of Dark 30 is modern and huge and the fidelity is incredible, but it has that same sort of timeless and essential and irreducible quality.

It also has that same intimate feel...as if this cool guy in faded jeans got some of his friends to knock off hauling stumps (or maybe teaching kids?) and play some things they do at Saturday-night dances and some stuff they do 'cuz they like it...and when the kid from out of state turns on the recording device, they proceed to effortlessly JUST FLAT LAY IT DOWN. And when you listen to it a week or a decade later, you know they were grinnin' at each other, because there are so many layers and references and truths and jokes and tears pouring into the microphone that some folks will never be able to figure it out...even though they should---and nobody who wasn't there will ever get to the bottom of it all...

It is nothing less than an instant classic. It is the tiniest of steps away from actually being at the show. It is an extraordinarily clear, clean and crisp live recording...and that is probably an understatement. It is four long-time friends bringing everything they have to the table and betting it all as a group. It is folk, and blues, and jazz and something indefinable— featuring extended instrumental passages where you can actually hear the delicate conversations between their instruments—but pure.

Once again, Stewart, Kenmore, Batti (and John Hoke this time) have somehow called the lightning down—to sit in...

If you are not a John Stewart fan yet, this is a terrific place to start. This album and Havana offer you a small, clear window into where the long, sleek fast-freight train of Stewart's live and studio music is at this moment. And you are in the enviable position of being able to go back 35 years to the toasty caboose at the other end, work forward, and meet yourself in the middle. What a wonder. What a ride!

Like Neon Beach, this is PFM....the real stuff.

Again... 

The songs: 

Disc One
1.   Jimmy Duke's Intro
2.   Road Shines Bright
3.   Renegade Rising
4.   It Ain't the Gold
5.   Cowboy Intro
6.   Cowboy in the Distance
7.   Who Stole the Soul of Johnny Dreams
8.   China Sky
9.   Sweet Dreams
10. Lucky Old Sun
11. Dreamers on the Rise
12. Daydream Believer

Disc Two
1.   One-Eyed Joe
2.   Moonlight Dream
3.   Heart of a Kid
4.   Summer Child
5.   Wind on the River
6.   Waltz of the Crazy Moon
7.   Fire in the Wind/Gimme Shelter Medley
8.   Lost Her in the Sun
9.   Midnight Special/Cotton Fields/Strange Rivers Medley

The 2004 Neon Dreams Records release of That Night at Dark 30 (Even the Band had Fun) is now out-of-print.

   


The Day the River Sang

2006 Appleseed release
Produced and Engineered by John Hoke and John Stewart
Second Unit Production by Greg Jorgenson

 (Image is from the CD cover insert, photo by Buffy Ford Stewart)

"...And we will hide for forty years, if that's what's meant to be, meant to be..."  (John Stewart, 1963)

Fans of John Stewart often share a deep appreciation of the metaphor and innuendo in his work, the layered meanings in words and notes both sung and silent. This new album has veins of understanding, affirmation and empathy running down through so many strata that each listening brings new insights and meanings.

And we've listened to it a lot.

The Day the River Sang is the most completely realized, unified and coherent "major release" of his work in a very long time, and there have been some simply terrific albums in these forty-plus years. Some of the favorable comparisons around here go all the way back to 1969.

It was like finding a package out on the railing under the mailbox, wrapped in brown paper so heavy and stiff that it fought its folds and tapings until it fell away to reveal the velvet glow of rubbed cedar...dovetailed joins at the corners, fine brass hinges, a top fitted with such care that no latch was needed, and a faint smell of fine cigars... Inside, on top of something wrapped in tissue... another long letter from the friend who knows us so well, written and sketched on crisp parchment and tucked into an unsealed envelope of fine vellum. Notes and thoughts and a hand-drawn map of where we've been and what's ahead, the things we've forgotten and the things we've gained, and the precious nature of found and fashioned wisdom and humor and truths, lanterns in the dark.

Lift the tissue and find stories like rough agates exposed by time, chosen for harmony of size and the clarity of contrast, face-polished by hand and linked, not into a single strand, but an irregular mesh of fine and golden connections that hangs like a veil, open at the edges.

There's nothing forced in the telling. The truths are for the taking. The latitude and longitude of the trails marked here are the care taken between old friends and the respect given between those who have come the long way through the rough terrain life serves up.

We're all survivors here, friends. Oh sure, there are some to whom it is given to dance through life. For a lot of the rest of us, it's a hike through broken country on a faint and winding trail, tump line tugging at a head full of times.

Sometimes we survive on transient beauty, pale tracings in a petal, the flash of a hawk. And the music we hear in our heads when picking a way across broken scree is essential to the becoming that's probably the point of it all. There are also crystalline moments, with a whisper in the breeze, urging you to drop your guard and open your senses and see your friends and fellow travelers in profile against the light curving over the horizon west.

Once in a while, you file onto a grassy shelf tucked into the climb, an hour after twilight and a day into your canteen, and there's the glow of a fire laid down by a craggy scout who found the way and marked it in time with rhythms he was the first to hear.

Some of the very best of those soft, glowing swails have always been discovered on the remarkable geography of that island of music that flies the flag of Stewart.

The Day the River Sang is one of the most special yet.

So drop your rucksack, lean back against your roll, put your scarred boots toward the fire and listen to the care in the crafting and production, the exquisite economy of the arrangements, with everything needed there and everything else polished away, as you realize that the guy on the log across the way, the one polishing something with oil and rouge and an ancient cloth, is the one who marked the way you've come. And there's the headstock of a Taylor just visible next to him, in the flickering light...

The Day the River Sang tells you right up front that the palette of experience and observation to be used in the album will be very wide, indeed. "Baby It's You" is a song for long-time lovers, those who have come out the other end of the toils and turmoils of ten or twenty or forty years of internal and external mutual geography, still holding hands. Stewart's opener tells us that it's more than a little all right to celebrate the nightingale dances where we began and the stars of tonight and the days between. The placement of this song at the head of this sequence, and the phrasing of the theme and title cannot be accidental. It certainly doesn't shut out listeners in their teens and twenties, quite the opposite. But, if you remember the Shirelles and 1961, the song plays out against a backdrop of memories as a tender tribute to ourselves as we were then, and the wonders earned since.

It's a heck of a song, one that, at the very first listen, will draw you into the experience that awaits in the twelve that follow. And that would be good enough for a lot of artists. It is uniquely Stewart, however, that there should be bandings laid down by the salts of time and tears, to be revealed as your first attention turns into the appreciation of familiarity, echoing its theme. A whole lot of us hear references to the chorus of "Lost Her in the Sun" in the instrumental opening, and, if they are in fact there, that can't be accidental either. That's how thinly the razors of time and chance have parsed our lives, in so many cases. Is this the story of a guy who got up two hours earlier on that day, and said the things and then kept the promises made, so that she "never said goodbye..." because she never left?

How many artists care enough, and have cared long enough, about the listener to even have you wondering?

Every song brings something new and surprising to the table. The production is crisp, thoughtful and delicately layered. Listen to the different messages in the harmonica passages played by Stewart and those of Henry Diltz. Listen to the way Dave Batti's bass has been pulled forward in the front-to-back mix in some of these songs, to let it sing its own song right alongside the keyboards of John Hoke. Listen to the bite and grit and moods in Stewart's voice as it continues to become one of those uniquely "American" instruments. Listen to the transformation of "East of Denver" as the sweetness of the voices of Keena and Bianca Batti, Penney Roberts and Kate Wallace are set against Stewart's differing delivery of the verses and the choruses.

Stewart and Batti and Hoke and Diltz and all the others who have contributed to this project have been wrapped by the production and engineering in an extraordinarily intimate way. These are not session musicians brought in for a job. These are old friends being given the chance to bring that one, perfect note or passage into the mix like glowing candles built on a score of stages, in a whirl of towns. Everything here is essential. Nothing is superfluous. And we've finally got Dave Batti playing accordion on an album.

There are some thoughts about some of the songs below, but this album is so richly textured that you will surely find your own meanings and memories and favorites as it unfolds. If you are already a fan, you already know that the center of the glowing lapidary of Stewart's music is always left for you to fill. So much of music now is arithmetic. Stewart's work is a geometry of sharing, built in the firelit spaces between the artist and the listener. And if you are just coming to that place? What a wonderful beginning to the journeys to come! 

In "Midnight Train," twelve songs after those opening notes and references to 1961 (and 1979?), Stewart wraps it all back around with lyrics as contemporary as next week's news set next to 1955's Cadillacs hit "Speedo." If you're listening while driving (which is a terrific idea after the first sit-down with The Day the River Sang), the album never really ends, as the driving rhythm of the last song slides smoothly into "Slider" and back around to "Baby It's You." And the reference to "the moon on the hood" and the use of "Cadillac" as a street name tell you once again that the brittle plastic container you opened to receive these gifts really is a whole lot more like that old, hand-rubbed cigar box.

Or is it all just accident and happenstance? Well, it really wouldn't matter if it was, but around these parts we don't think so. John Stewart has been doing this same thing down all the years since the lines from "Run the Ridges" where we began. (And the placement of this up-gunned version of that song as the fifth on the album, between the title track and the completely realized performance of "New Orleans," cannot be random either, friends.) There's not one artist in a thousand who cares enough about us to layer their art this deeply, to wrap their love of us in care this delicate and respectful of the things we each bring to exchanges of the heart.

It's simply not right that this "one-in-thousands" artist has hidden in plain sight for so much of the fifty years since Earl "Speedo" Carroll's nickname was entered into the lexicon of American Music by Esther Navarro (or so the story goes), near the time of Stewart's sixteenth birthday.

But then, you don't often see the scouts, do you?

Grab the chance when you get it.

Find a quiet time, shut off the world in your head and the telephone, think about those flickering flames and the presence of legend, put The Day the River Sang on the big speakers, but at about medium volume and listen to the whole thing through. Then take a walk before you cue it up again, because there is a nearly irresistible tendency to go into total immersion.

Who else gives you that?

The songs: 

1.   Baby, It's You
2.   Jasmine

There was a hunger once for the magical happenstance found somewhere out beyond a car hood opened at every stop, if luck and a far nighttime came together. You didn't have to know what you were looking for to know when it had been found, out there on the fine, hard edges of risk and sunset on a new horizon. Is this song permission to turn away from unlocking that driver's door and to ease instead up a street in the dusk to find the closer mysteries in the fragrant hollows of home? Could be...

3.   East of Denver
4.   The Day the River Sang

Forty or fifty years of hope and truth and promise in four minutes, and it will mean something different to every listener. Enough said.

5.   Run the Ridges
6.   New Orleans

Songs about flood and storm have found their way into our music all the way back into the Twenties and before, when artists like Charlie Patton and Willie Brown took the dirt roads and railbeds north into the Paramount studios in Wisconsin and recorded "High Water Everywhere," and so many others. Some of us once thought Randy Newman had taken that musical thread as far as it could go. But has it ever been so wistful as this, turned in the hands and words and notes of John and Buffy Stewart? Where others may have tried to capture the storms of 2005 on the gulf in bold oils and broad brushstrokes, this is a watercolor, trusting the listener to bring themselves to the experience and sense the colors and meanings at the edges of the wash.

7.   Golden Gate Fields
8.   Amanda Won't Dance

Some of us heard this live on two nights in Scottsdale in August of 2005, and woke up with it stuck in our head for months after. It's a song with a twinkle in its eye and a finger laid alongside its nose, wise and fun and just a little bit on the sly side. Or maybe that's us, if given a tad bit of encouragement and permission...

9.   Sister Mercy
10. Broken Roses (Weathered Dreams)

We probably all have encountered a rose pressed into a book somewhere so far into someone's past that some of the petals have turned into dust, and the stem has split. But have you ever noticed that there will often be one undamaged petal and a bit of the scent, just waiting to be found? Dreams and memories can be like that. You might think you've put them away, and then find out that down the years that followed they were out there in front of you the whole time, taking the force of the tumult and the grit, losing the nonessential soft parts until the veins of the things that have held you together are exposed and shine. Waiting to be found again...

11. Naked Angel on a Star-Crossed Train
12. Midnight Train
13. Slider Stuck Her Hand in a Rainbow

This one may slip right past you on the first listen and then nail you to the floor somewhere down the line. Thanks to John Stewart, some of us have had the non sequiturial dazzlement of spending a little time with Julie Krone, who turns everything you thought you knew about bravery and the size of the human heart upside down in ways that defy anything except delight. Well, Julie had this dream, and she shared it with John... Anyway. Give yourself a chance to absorb the lyrics and then, really listen to the instrumentation, arrangement, production and engineering. Oh Sweet Martha...

[With heartfelt gratitude for the help in the writing from Tom Barrett, Paul Rybolt, Jo Otto, Bert Wiest, Annie O'Keefe and all the kids in the treehouse...]

We  are offering the Appleseed Records release of The Day the River Sang for $16.00 US, plus shipping and handling.

 
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The Piano Album


2008 Neon Dreams release
Produced by John Stewart
Mastering by Jeff McDonald and Justin Zellers

 (Image is from the CD cover insert, photo by Henry Diltz)

For some of us, the ride across the last forty years or so has had its own sound track, and memories will erupt if we stumble on music as disparate (and occasionally silly) as Raydio and Quincy Jones, scanning radio bands, stuck in traffic, or getting ambushed by satellite stations.

You can tell the real die-hards. There will be at least one functioning turntable and an LP collection indexed in an idiosyncratic way. Sometimes the amplifier will have tubes and the speakers will be a lot bigger than a loaf of bread. The system to play CDs will either be separate, or will have been grafted onto the "real" sound system--the one for vinyl and cassettes. And there will be a series of personal compilations that start on cassettes and span the years onto CD media. The truly afflicted might just have a homemade 8-track or two...

Around here those compilations will have at least one of Stewart's songs, and, more often, two or three, reflecting his recordings most recent at the time of compiling and in the reproduction format available in the car owned at the time. Sometimes you needed a mix for the miles ahead, and at other times it had to be pure John Stewart, but he was always there.

The timing was so often perfect. Stewart would be running ahead of us a few years, and writing about the things he was seeing. By the time the recordings had caught up--been made and been distributed-- we'd be hitting many of the same spots and crossings. We were never quite alone. He had scouted the way and left markers to guide us through. And so much of his material was timeless that you could always dial back to 1969 or whenever and find what you needed to get through a day or two in the eighties or nineties.

Whatever else might be happening in your world, though, you could always count on the fact that there would be a new album from him in a year or two or four. It didn't take that long to figure out that he was no more going to quit writing and recording than we were going to quit the moonlit roads of our own journeys.

After he took that one-way trail out ahead of us in January of 2008, it took a while for some of this to really sink in. If you've been taking the horizon for granted because it has always been there, it might not be obvious that somebody else's building or the lights of the place you are living have taken away the last bit of that long view or the span of the stars and quiet.

It turns out that John Stewart had been providing for us, same as always. We had slowly come to realize that he had written songs with a frequency the rest of us reserve for visits to the drive-through. There had accumulated a collection of demos, alternates and live performances that was staggering, and the one person most ideally suited to maintaining this archive was the same one who had followed Stewart's career most fully and written about it most compellingly--Tom DeLisle.

The Piano Album is the first "new" album to issue from that treasure trove. Neon Dreams, Stewart's private label, is the publisher. The extensive liner notes could have been written by no one but DeLisle. The 10 tracks are from the time immediately before Fire in the Wind, in the mid-1970s, the art is from Henry Diltz, and the remastering is by Jeff McDonald and Justin Zellers at Sweetwater Productions in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The craft on display is stunning.

 And the back story is distinctively Stewart.

As Tom DeLisle writes in the liner notes:

"This collection, recorded in two days in November of 1976, came to be known -- by the very few who ever knew of its existence -- as The Piano Album, owing to the fact that John, because of financial restraints as much as creative expansion, played all the piano parts along with his normal acoustic guitar and vocal work. (A side note here: John had been much influenced in the early '70s by pianist and fellow songwriter Tom Waits, and took to writing some of his songs to piano accompaniment...)

"The irony, contributing to the miracle that is this Piano Album, is that Stewart finished its recording in record time, and hurried with a cassette tape to a scheduled late-afternoon meeting with a record label hotshot in downtown Los Angeles, hoping the exec would be impressed enough to sign John to a contract. After a full listen to all ten songs, with John nervously searching the man's face for reaction to the tunes, the guy handed the tape back to John and said "There's nothing here that interests me. Thanks for coming in, and have a nice Thanksgiving."

"I happened to be at Stewart's house above Malibu Road along that magnificent stretch of Southern California beach when he returned home that night after the rejection. He dejectedly went to toss the cassette in his kitchen trash when I stopped him and asked for the tape. "You really want this?" When I assured him I did, he flipped it to me, sarcastically adding, "Have a nice Thanksgiving."

"John's disappointment was my good fortune.  And now it's yours.   Had that tape been lost, this recording, and several of these songs, would  have gone forever unheard with it. I subsequently spent many a long and pleasant night sitting on the porch of my own place on that beach, often with the Santa Ana winds whipping the tops off the cascading waves, listening via headphones to these magic sounds. To this day, I cannot hear them without evoking the spell of the looming moon over the Pacific on those warm and windy nights, with the dramatic strains of "New Orleans" and the gorgeous "Virginia" and "Hand Your Heart to the Wind" taking me back once again."

Once again, the timing is perfect, bringing a spray of lights across the dark. This one is like hitting the scan button on your radio and somehow locking in to a signal from 30 years ago, carrying new songs from Stewart on a carrier wave of both familiarity and surprise.

Just as back then, the songs are dense with lyrical watercolors and new characters. Shots to the psyche drifting in like feathers... New Orleans before a different song with the same name, in the wash of a different storm. Angeles delivered so much more robustly and authentically than the "official" version on Blondes...and the rest of the story on Louie. Boston Lady with a roguish turn to the count-in and close (you are never going to hear the end of this song quite the same way again) and on and on through what might just be a reference to his fans left behind slipped into the first line of the last verse of the last song, and all the subtleties in the delivery by that voice, ferocious leads and bass lines, and PIANO??...

The re-mastering is superb. Gratitude is owed to Jeff and Justin. The art is masterful in that very special way that says "Henry Diltz" (heck, even the color in the hatband and the feather are perfect).

DeLisle's notes are as exceptional as ever, laying out the story for those who know and those who are discovering...

And there are a couple of these that beg to have a new road compilation built around them... 

The songs: 

1.   Hometown Girl
2.   New Orleans (Riding Home)
3.   Angeles
4.   Boston Lady
5.   Hide Where the Wind Can't Find Me
6.   Hand Your Heart to the Wind
7.   Virginia
8.   Zapata's Own Comrades
9.   18 Wheels
10. Auld Lang Syne

The Neon Dreams release of The Piano Album is now out-of-print.

   

A Neon Dreams Sampler

 

2009 Neon Dreams release
All songs written and produced by John Stewart
Album produced by Paul Rybolt

 (Image is from the CD cover insert, photo by John Stewart)

 

For nearly 40 years, John Stewart was out there ahead of us, marking life's blind curves and risky bridges, and the narrow places where sudden sprays of salt water could land us in the ditch. He gave us songs to guide us, save us and warn us that were somehow timeless. Always topical in his own way, still there is a remarkably small portion of his immense body of work that is tied to a time. "18 Wheels" and "Davey on the Internet" come to mind, but even they are so iconic as to somehow escape categorization as "dated."

And that was just on the albums that were published by "major" labels.

For a huge percentage of his fans, those were the only songs we knew. Out here in the far, open spaces there might be a rare personal appearance by Stewart somewhere, but it seemed as if we always heard about it a couple of weeks after it happened. Our relationship with the man was another step removed from the people who saw him, regularly, in concert. As the years rolled on and we prowled the record, and then CD racks awaiting a new album from him, the feeling grew that there had to be more. This guy was so good that he had to be writing more than three or four songs a year.

Boy, were we right.

There were hundreds of songs being preserved, in both a private depository and one that was a little more public. The first was the contents of "the box that ate Mount Clemens," a story touched on elsewhere in these pages and more fully told by Tom DeLisle in the liner notes for Wires from the Bunker. It was, and remains, a treasure trove of demos, concert recordings, alternate takes and private recordings. Most recently "the box" was the source of the original tapes for The Piano Album, noted just above.

The second was a largely underground river of Stewart's work, recorded in a variety of settings, but often in his home studio, and published on his own private labels, most often on Neon Dreams. The albums, tapes and CDs were for his fans. They were available at his concerts and to members of a couple of mailing lists. They rarely showed up in catalogues.

These recordings all appear here on the Stewart Shelves, intermixed with the "commercial" recordings. There are more than 20 of them, and the songs and performances they contain rival and often surpass any that appeared on the "major label" issues.

Perhaps more important, at least for those of us whose lifelines had come to contain Stewart songs like intricate macrame with semi-precious stones woven into the emerging texture, these private issues filled in the gaps of time when we were awaiting the appearance of his next album at our local music store. To put it another way, we found out that we had been operating with every other chapter of a survival manual, and somehow were given the missing ones.

Some of them would touch off retrospectives of our lives in the days of their recording, dovetailing so neatly into remembrance that it would be like black and white photos turned to fresh colors when we paged through photo albums long neglected. With others, it was as if they had been written for that very time in our experiences when we finally discovered them, no matter how long before he had penned them. And there were a few that turned out to have arrived from the past to blend with our chapters just beginning, before even we knew what was going on.

Who, other than Stewart, could do that?

This sampler of that material touches on eleven of the private issue albums. One could easily argue that different songs and different albums could have been included, but that would totally miss the point.

And that point is that this is a sampler, a quick taste of this mother lode of John Stewart's music that you might have missed. It offers hints of the richness this entire sub-catalogue contains and it does it very, very well.

If you are one of the many whose status as a fan was forged on the basis of his "commercial" releases only, this one is your introduction to a lot of the missing chapters from the manual that occasionally got us back out of the ditch and sometimes helped us fly. There are some others that live with Tom DeLisle, from TBTAMC. And still others live in the memories of his friends, like Henry Diltz and Chip Douglas. If you want those, you might want to search for "Bloodlines" or attend the annual reunion of his fans in Scottsdale, in August.

Just because you've made it this far by waiting for the music to find you doesn't mean there's anything wrong with putting yourself in the way of the chance.
 
The songs: 

1.   Long Train of Dreams (from Rocket Roy)
2.   Midnight Wind (from One Night in Denver)
3.   Endless Roads and Northern Lights (from Buster)
4.   China Skies (from The Secret Tapes)
5.   The City (from The Secret Tapes)
6.   All the Words Unspoken (from Johnny Moonlight)
7.   Tanforan (from Tanforan)
8.   July, You're a Woman (Ballad version) (from Tanforan)
9.   Those Who Are Wise (from Chilly Winds)
10. Cheyenne (from Chilly Winds)
11. Pilots in Blue (from Trancas)
12. Chasing Down the Rain (from Trancas)
13. New Orleans (Riding Home) (from The Piano Album)
14. Daydream Believer (from Night at Dark 30--Even the Band had Fun)
15. Looking Back Johanna Medley (from Front
Row Music)

The Neon Dreams Sampler is now out-of-print.

   

REPRISE

If our modern bards and shanachies—the keepers and tellers of our truths—have a guild hall somewhere out there in the misty multi-dimensions of America, John Stewart has claimed the seat by the fire.

The warm place for the minstrel and story-teller is a tradition braided into our common culture. There are still homes that will always make a place at the table. There will be a mug gathering dust at the back of the cupboard, to be washed and polished and filled on the day that an old friend in broken boots comes up the alley or down the lane, moving with that easy pace of the walker of miles, carrying strings and stories and news that didn't see print. There are still back-fence telegraphs, made of laundry lines and screen-door whispers, to pass the words...

The warm spot by the fire—and the small sleeping-room near the chimney—are still kept in those few homes, against the day and need of the teller and singer of our self.

You have to be pretty doggone good to have that spot in the guild hall...

It has belonged to John Stewart. Even when he wasn't sitting there.

CODA

Who are the heroes? (And do we define them, or do they define us?) 

Who are the champions? Who are the brave hearts who drag their armor through the night to the next ford, to stand again and challenge?

You are.

John Stewart said so. He ought to know.

Credits, Kudos and Cracker Jack Medals

To the advisory board of the Northern Plains Archive Project— Dennis Pashe, Dr. Angela Wilson, Bill Dunn, Jonathan Wilmshurst, Jack Weatherford and Dr. David Taylor—plus a wide circle of informal advisors and friends,
and
the "whale-watchers": Dave Batti, Tom DeLisle, Tom Barrett, "Catsjammies" Lily, Catherine "WildIrish" Rose, Dennis "Doc" Hartman, Chris O'Shikata and Patrick N., CJ and the Wilsons in Arizona, Tim Riley, Kelly Cathryn Marie, Amy B. the "Gadgetqueen," Paul "Johnny Dollar" Rybolt, and, first and last, the Gunner...
                    for support, advice, encouragement, feedback, editing and adjectives...

Thanks to Ron "Clack" Beffa, Tim "Old Riley" Riley, and Bob "Bite My Foot" Elliot for blazing the trail, creating the John Stewart web sites that proved it could be done and making this one possible... And to Michelle Stevens, creator of the Bloodlines listserv—a lot of this would be pretty hard to imagine without that "watering hole," where John Stewart fans from all over the world can stop to fill up their canteens and share a bit of a gab in the shade.

And to the plainspoken poet...for making life a richer place...

G.H., NPAP  2003-2014

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