The Day the River Sang, the latest collection of new Stewart originals, again affirms John’s credentials as one of our most overlooked painters of indelible musical pictures. Using the warm, minimal brushstrokes of his own acoustic and electric guitars, his long-time Dave Batti/John Hoke rhythm section, and occasional wisps of keyboards, harmonica and backing voices, Stewart applies a similarly effective less-is-more approach to his lyrics and vocals. Now in his mid sixties, Stewart invests the opening love song, “Baby, It’s You,” with a sense of relief and gratitude a younger man might lack. But the youthful gleam in his eye is unmistakable on the frisky “Amanda Won’t Dance,” the album’s other lightly rocking ballad. The pull between heart and highway is frequently felt, particularly in the lovely “Jasmine,” on which John’s weathered tenor unexpectedly swoops into a sweet falsetto, the tongue-in-cheek “East of Denver” and the deeply road weary “Broken Roses.” And one would be hard pressed to find a more poignant elegy for the pre-Hurricane Katrina Crescent City than “New Orleans,” with its heartbroken piano accompaniment a la Tom Waits and Randy Newman, whispered vocals, and lyrics that were largely written by John’s long-time wife, soulmate and sometime singing partner, Buffy Ford Stewart.
With their musical foundations in folk, country, rock and bluegrass, John’s songs have always encompassed subjects stretching from the sky above to the mud below. The Day the River Sang includes a terse character study of the “junkies and jockeys at post-time and coast time” at “Golden Gate Fields,” harking back to John’s boyhood spent working in California racetracks alongside his father, and the lightly jazzy “Slider,” which watches a good girl go wrong. On the metaphysical end of the spectrum, the title track is a vision of paradise and peace, while “Sister Mercy” is a naked plea for guidance in troubling times (“It seems I’ve lost directions/And I’ve always had them down.”). In between are John’s tribute to his muse, “Naked Angel on a Star-Crossed Train,” the propulsive tragicomic nightmare of “Midnight Train,” with a dig at “El Presidente,” and a new version of “Run the Ridges,” from John’s Kingston Trio days.
Reviews"a man who hasn't lost his enormous faith in people and who earnestly but eloquently compresses more than four decades of dreams and regrets into his songs" - Rolling Stone