The Lonesome Picker Rides Yet Again

Once upon a time, when the world was different, there were such things as pockets of popularity and regional stars. Contemporary radio and the monolithic record companies have made that concept a memory, but as recently as the mid-Seventies, Phoenix had its very own local hero in the person of John Stewart. He was a cult artist everywhere else, but here in the Valley Too Close to the Sun, the guy was a STAR.

His albums sold big numbers, and his concerts were events. When it came time in 1974 to record his career-spanning two-record live set, this was the place--The Phoenix Concerts was and is a classic from its era. Songs such as "Roll Away the Stone," "California Bloodlines" and "(You Can't Go Back to) Kansas" were staples of the old KDKB and other rock stations of the era.

Stewart's kept a great relationship with the local audience, and will be back to see some old friends when he hits town for a show on Sunday, December 13, at Scottsdale's Anderson's Fifth Estate.

Stewart's a performer who falls between the cracks of American pop culture. He's always been just a step away from the general public's consciousness--a member of The Kingston Trio after the great folk-music boom, a country singer before country was cool, a straightahead rock 'n' roller during the disco years. Whether it always has been bad timing or a willful disregard for convention is hard to say; but quite possibly it's been the latter. Commercial considerations never seem to have been one of Stewart's concerns.

The rest of the country caught up with Phoenix in 1979 and made Stewart's Lindsey Buckingham-produced single "Gold" into a massive hit record. But there were no follow-up hits, and he settled back into the cult status that has kept his career rolling ever since. That career has been a long and interesting one. He first came to prominence in 1961 when he replaced Dave Guard in The Kingston Trio, a gig lasting through 1968. Then he teamed briefly with another ex-folkie by the name of John Denver. Although this partnership never really worked out, both gentlemen wrote some of their most enduring songs at the time, including Peter, Paul and Mary's biggest hit "Leaving on a Jet Plane" (written by Denver) and The Monkees' favorite "Daydream Believer" (written by Stewart).

After the liaison with Denver, Stewart staked his claim as a solo artist and remains one to this day. One of his most memorable songs, "Armstrong," written for his 1973 album Cannons in the Rain after the first moon walk, brilliantly compared the accomplishment to everyday life all over this planet. The image of people from different countries, cultures and lifestyles being joined in the act of watching "a man named Armstrong walk upon the moon" is an unforgettable one. Once heard, that particular song becomes part of your cranium (like it or not) forever.

The prolific Stewart's fans have always been able to depend on at least one new album a year. His discography currently stands at 35 albums, not counting his years with The Kingstons and his even earlier recordings as part of the Cumberland Three. And fans never quite know what to expect with each new release. You can find his music in the racks labeled folk, country, rock and even pop. He'll follow a solo acoustic release with a rousing rocker and then follow that one with a mellow duet LP with his longtime wife and partner, Buffy Ford. Just in case his followers can't find enough in the record stores, he has developed a direct-mail fan base for limited-edition cassette releases. Since the '80s, he has distributed half a dozen of his so-called "secret tapes" to supplement the more conventional releases.

His Arizona connection remains strong. Through the years, he has dedicated works such as 1993's Escape to Arizona and 1997's Rough Sketches From Route 66, as well as the aforementioned The Phoenix Concerts, to his fans in the desert. The relationship continues as old friends and new fans will have a chance to hear Stewart tell some stories and sing a few songs in the intimate surroundings at Anderson's in downtown Scottsdale.

--David Gofstein

John Stewart is scheduled to perform on Sunday, December 13, at Anderson's Fifth Estate, 6820 East Fifth Avenue in Scottsdale. Showtime is 8 p.m.; tickets are $14.50 in advance, $15.50 the day of the show. 994-4168, 503-5555.

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David Gofstein