Wires From The Bunker
(APR CD 1047)
by Rich Heckman
Being a "folky" during the first half of the 1960s, I was a fan of the Kingston Trio, and I enjoyed John Stewart's contributions to that group, however, with a couple of exceptions, I am generally unfamiliar with his post-Trio solo recordings. At some point, long after its initial release, I came to appreciate his live 1974 recording, The Phoenix Concerts, and I liked John's 1979 hit single Gold from the popular album, Bombs Away Dream Babies. That's it. I pretty much stumbled into reviewing Wires From The Bunker, because a friend who had agreed to write a review became reluctant...actually, he was ambivalent after listening a couple of times to the CD and somewhat at a loss for a way to frame the review.
In general, I do not like most CDs the first time I hear them, but I do appreciate just about any music to which I can tap my foot and snap my fingers. Further, I am predisposed to singers who perform Steve Gillette songs (in this case Molly and Tenbrooks), and, also, in this case, my expectations were low due to my friend's ambivalence regarding the CD.
Given these prejudices, I was surprised to discover that the first song on Wires From The Bunker (American Way) was very appealing from the opening riff, and the energy level of each succeeding track was infectious. I happened to be listening in my car, and I found myself stomping the floorboard and drumming the steering wheel with gusto. It was only later that I read in the liner notes, "you are cautioned that you just cannot drive 55 when [the chorus of American Way] is pounding away." I had found that caution to be absolutely true. The surprises continued when I discovered there are actually two songs titled Molly and Tenbrooks, -- John is definitely not singing the Steve Gillette tune. According to John's liner notes, his version was originally recorded by the Kingston Trio when Dave Guard was still a member, and it was a public domain song updated by Tom Drake. In any case, it sounds good, which essentially summarized my initial impression of the entire CD...and when I say "sounds good," I also mean that the recordings seem very high quality for having come from tapes that sat neglected for nearly 20 years.
That's right, the songs on Wires From The Bunker were gleaned from hundreds of old tapes - demo recordings, alternate takes, home recordings, and live shows - that emerged from John's garage during a move in 1991. The tracks on the album were initially recorded between 1981 and 1983, and are a collection of up-tempo songs reflecting the influence and collaboration of Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, who co-produced John's 1979 top ten album Bombs Away Dream Babies. The song Liddy Buck on the CD is John's tribute to Lindsey.
The journey to that top ten album began twenty years earlier when John started playing rock and roll in the late 1950s. He then became interested in folk music when he went off to college, and he first gained recognition when his songs were recorded by the Kingston Trio. In 1960, he formed the Cumberland Three, which recorded three albums with limited success. The following year, he replaced Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio and stayed with them until 1967. His song Daydream Believer was a number one hit for the Monkees that year. In 1969, John released his first successful solo album, California Bloodlines, which is now considered a classic of the singer-songwriter genre. It was ten years later that he enjoyed his biggest commercial success with Bombs Away Dream Babies. Now, more than twenty years later, Wires From The Bunker is his 43rd release since leaving the Kingston Trio.
Above, I noted surprise at the quality of the recordings in light of their history of neglect in John's garage. The melodic balance of the instruments, the understated background vocals, and John's own vocals are all much better than might be expected from twenty year old tape. On the other hand, the recordings do have some weaknesses. At times, the sound seems a bit fuzzy or muddy, which may be the twenty years showing. On first listening to the opening tracks, John's voice and the instrumentation did not seem in harmony. The instruments seemed tinny and jangly while his voice was muffled and smoky, to the point I wanted to crank up the bass on the instruments and crank up the treble on his voice. But having grown up during the era of folk-rock, I frequently enjoy a jangly sound, so it soon began to grow on me, and, as it did, I began to better appreciate the mix of instrumentation and voice.
Overall, I have positive, nostalgic feelings for John's work with the Kingston Trio, but, unlike some Trio fans, I did not feel betrayed when he entered his folk-rock period. I liked the few Buckingham-influenced songs I heard at the time, and I like a lot of the songs on Wires From The Bunker too. Musically, there are some very strong rock-type numbers (American Way, When The Night Was Ours, and Rockin' As The Night Rolls On) and some excellent folk-type tunes (Molly and Tenbrooks, The Escape of Old John Welsh, Molly Dee, and High Flying Eagle). Lyrically, the song themes cover everything from the pressures of the music industry ("Under Heavy Fire") and the Hollywood scene (Wide Eyed In Babylon) to new love (Same Old Heart) and failed relationships (All The Desperate Men), and every song reflects John's musical craftsmanship in the blending of folk and rock elements.
All the songs were written by John with the exception of Molly and Tenbrooks and The Escape of Old John Webb, and, on those two songs, John is joined vocally by former Kingston Trio members Nick Reynolds and Dave Guard. Lindsey Buckingham, Henry Diltz, Katherine Guard and Karen Tobin also lend their voices on several tracks. Because I am not familiar with the bulk of John's work, I can only offer the measured judgment that the songs on Wires From The Bunker are some of his best, but by whatever standard, they are good music. It is frequently not the case with many CDs, but I am happy to have taken the time to listen to this one.