Kingston Trio,
The Final Concert
(Collector's Choice, 2007)

Kingston Trio,
The Lost 1967 Album
(Collector's Choice, 2007)

In the mid-1950s, three guys who had worked their way through college playing and singing folk songs decided to try to make it in the pro ranks. They woodshedded a few months and, when they figured they were ready, began auditioning at San Francisco nightclubs. The three singers landed a long-running gig at the Hungry I, where they signed a management contract written on a napkin with one of the waiters and then spent the next year or so becoming the Kingston Trio.

The waiter, Frank Gerber, helped drill the amateurism out of Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds, and then landed them a deal with Capitol Records. They put out an album, The Kingston Trio, and not much happened until a Michigan disc jockey played "Tom Dooley' on the air. That's all it took; the song hit No. 1 on the charts and won a Grammy, the Kingston Trio became major stars and the folk revival of the '60s was born.

It is safe to say the Kingston Trio, much as the Beatles did when they came along six years later, single-handedly changed the direction of popular music. To understand why and how they were able to do this, you have to take a look at what pop music was at the time. In the early '50s, pop was dominated by oldstyle crooners, former big-band singers like Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney. Then, driven by independent pioneers like Sam Phillips of Sun Records, rock exploded. Phillips himself contributed Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis -- enough to revolutionize the music right there. For a while, rock dominated the airwaves and Sinatra was reduced to paying his own recording and distribution costs. Everything changed overnight.

The change was driven by the independent labels. When the majors saw how much money there was to be made, they moved in. RCA bought Presley's contract from Sun, while Columbia stole Cash. These labels immediately set out to emasculate the singers they had bought, fearing the energy, verve and sheer sexiness of their music was a corporate embarrassment. As Clyde McPhatter, a top rhythm-and-blues singer for Atlantic Records, said of his new label, Mercury, "They pay a lot of money for my music and then they won't let me make the music they paid for."

With Elvis recording soft ballads and being drafted, with Lewis banned from the airwaves for marrying his 13-year-old cousin and Cash neutered, we entered a dead age of rock. It was an age that considered Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Annette Funicello rock 'n' rollers. The times were ripe for an infusion of something different, and the Kingston Trio provided it. Folk music had undergone a brief flirtation with popular success during the rise of Pete Seeger's group, the Weavers, in the late '40s, but the blacklisting of that group because of its leftwing political affiliations had killed the music. The Kingston Trio resurrected it.

By resurrecting the music, they also brought back to life an old argument: whose folk music shall we listen to? If it is popular and successful, is it still folk music? Since they had a huge following and sold a ton of records, they Trio was looked at as the epitome of commercialism in folk music and was somehow not pure enough for the purists. It's sort of like John Dewey and progressive education; just as Dewey was blamed for the excesses of his followers, the Trio was blamed for the wretchedness of all the singers who imitated them. As Irwin Silber complained as early as 1964: the sudden proliferation of folk trios, quartets, septets and junior-sized orchestras introduced new sounds into folk music at a breakneck pace. Those who had valued the traditional qualities of folk music were almost overwhelmed by the rapidity with which the gimmick-makers took over the name, the form and the organization of folk music.

Ironically, just as they were saving folk music, the Trio was accused of destroying it. Even as a new folk movement and culture arose, it became hot not to appreciate the pioneers who'd made it possible. The public still appreciated what they did but folk music was changing; instead of the trios and quartets, the solo singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Bob Gibson and Carolyn Hester took the forefront.

The Kingston Trio, as far as the folk mafia was concerned, could not do anything right. If they continued to do the music that had made them famous, they were called commercial hacks who pandered to their audience. If they tried to change, they were declared to have no direction, no core sound of their own. They discovered their audience's devotion had become a double-edged sword. "The music was changing," said John Stewart, who replaced Dave Guard in 1961, "and we wanted to change with it. The audience, though, did not want us to change."

Finally, in 1967, the urge to do something else had become too strong and the Trio decided to hang it up. To say farewell, they did a final week of concerts at the place where it all had started, the Hungry I. Now, after 40 years, the recording of that show has been issued and it was well worth the wait. The Final Concert is not just a record of a live show. It's a party. The trio packed the crowd with everyone who was important to them, their friends and business associates -- even the DJ who had first played "Tom Dooley" was there.

The Trio is fabulous in these performances, tight and together, musically brilliant, but loose and relaxed in their presentation. They joke around, poke fun at themselves and audience members, tell jokes fresh and lame, and have a really good time saying goodbye to one aspect of their careers. The set list tells the story of the contradictions that led to their decision to hang it up: mixed in with their old hits, like Woodie Guthrie's "Hard, Ain't It Hard" and Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," you'll find recently composed songs from the new folk movement they spawned, such as Dylan's "One Too Many Mornings," Eric Andersen's "Thirty Boots" and Donovan's "Colours."

Clearly the audience did not want to let them go and, after hearing this disc, you'll wish they had stayed around for more live performances and more records. You understand, though, why they made the decision they did: while they were saying goodbye in San Francisco, the Monterey Pop Festival was going on. Variety said that "most of the crowd, like the members of the Trio itself, were in their mid-30s. The kids were all at the Monterey Pop Festival." The Trio skipped their encore so that they could get there.

When they retired, they left behind the tracks they'd completed for a new album. It has also been released as The Lost 1967 Album, and since none of the tracks are finished, it would probably be more accurate to call it Lost Demos. It shows that they definitely had committed to a new direction and gives a few hints of what they wanted to accomplish. There are no traditional songs here and only two by Stewart, the chief writer for the band. The rest are penned by the top singer-songwriters extant in 1967: Paul Simon, Fred Neil, Donovan, Tim Hardin, John Sebastian and Bob Lind. Most of the singing is solo; Shane takes on the Tim Hardin compositions, "Don't Make Promises" and "Reason to Believe," while Reynolds sings a couple of Donovan tunes, "To Try for the Sun" and "Catch the Wind." Stewart solos on Fred Neil's "The Dolphins," Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" and Steve Gillette's "Darcy Farrow." A few songs offer the full trio singing together but, as I said, most do not.

And that's what drives you crazy listening to this record. While it's a lot of fun, when you hear it, you wonder what it would have sounded like if they had finished it. Would the reference vocals have stayed? Would songs sung solo have become full three-voiced offerings? Would the steadily thumping drums have been softened and altered? Would there be a full band to make the drums less prominent? You can listen to the tracks in progress that this record contains with pleasure but, mostly, listening makes you wonder what would have come had they not discarded their work.

Some version of the Kingston Trio has been around all through these years. Retirement did not stick. These records, though, are the Trio that people remember and, oddly enough, for a band that has been disbanded for 40 years, the past couple of years have brought the them a new presence. Current folkies like Cliff Eberhardt, Tom Paxton and Red Molly perform their songs and publicly proclaim the importance the Trio had for them. It also appears that PBS cannot raise money without using them and, in 2006 alone, three DVDs were issued. In 2007, three new CDs came out. After all this time, they remain legendary.

These CDs testify to the legend that the Kingston Trio has become. Like the Trio itself, these albums are not only important historically, they offer fine entertainment.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

12 January 2008

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