Monday, August 22, 2016

The Kingston Trio (PBS)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a PBS tribute to the Kingston Trio which turned out to be a concert special by the Trio’s current lineup. The original Kingston Trio consisted of Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds, though Guard and Shane broke up the band after 10 years of substantial success (and they launched in San Francisco at the Purple Onion, not in L.A. as the narration of this show had it) and Guard left, Shane took over ownership of the name, and John Stewart — later a solo folk artist in his own right (though his one major hit, “Gold,” probably sold mainly because of Stevie Nicks’ presence on second vocal) replaced Guard. I haven’t been able to nail down definitively when this show was made — the only Web sources I can find were for a 1982 special, also on PBS, but the Trio had a different lineup then (it was the Shane-Reynolds-Stewart one) and also the guest stars were different (Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, Roger Gambill, George Grove and Tom Smothers of the Smothers Brothers). Today’s Kingston Trio consists of Grove, Bill Zorn, Rick Daugherty and Paul Gabrielson — which of course really makes them the Kingston Quartet, though unlike their original bass player (who was front and center with the other two), Gabrielson hides in the back. The guests this time around were Sana Christian (whom I’d never heard of before but who’s a quite good country singer, sounding much like Linda Ronstadt when she sang country — and out of all the various forms of music Ronstadt sang over her career, I always liked her best as a country singer), Trini Lopez (who joined the Kingstons on “La Bamba), the Limeliters, Henry Diltz (who these days is best known as a photographer but was a member of the Modern Folk Quartet, a faux-folk group Phil Spector put together in the early 1960’s and named after the Modern Jazz Quartet; their main importance was in launching the career of Harry Nilsson) and Al Jardine of the Beach Boys.

Jardine came in for what could have been one of the best moments of the program and instead turned out to be one of its worst; the Kingstons started singing their version of “Sloop John B.” and Jardine came out and “corrected” them, steering them towards a neither-fish-nor-fowl rendition that didn’t sound like the Kingston Trio’s version and didn’t sound like the Beach Boys’ version (though there was a drummer hidden in the wings to give it a more rock and less folk sound) but was an unhappy amalgam of the two. There were two people on stage with direct connections to the original group: Josh Reynolds, Nick Reynolds’ son, came out to sing the lead on “M.T.A.” originally sung by his dad; and Bob Shane himself, who like Artie Shaw in his later years is usually a non-performer who sends the group out but stays home and gets his cut from them — they even joked that for  years Shane toured to build up the name of the group, and now he sits home and profits from it — but this time around came out and joined in on a few of the songs. The reason Shane no longer participates actively in the group’s performances (except on special occasions like this) became obvious when he did come out — and it was obvious that there were two pieces of plastic wrapped around his head: his glasses and his breathing tube. He was carrying a portable canister of oxygen and breathing through that, though his voice — albeit ragged with the passage of time — didn’t seem to be affected by whatever medical disorder requires him to breathe pure oxygen instead of normal air. He sang lead on “Tom Dooley” and soloed on “Scotch and Soda,” an odd Kingston Trio original because it’s closer to jazz or lounge music than folk — one could readily imagine it done by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan (and though most people don’t know this, Sinatra actually had one of the biggest hits of his career with a Kingston Trio cover: “It Was a Very Good Year”). Guard — who in his dotage has grown his hair long the way Lyndon Johnson did — sang “Scotch and Soda” beautifully and actually put his worn vocal quality to good use projecting the tear-in-my-scotch-and-soda lyric. One other guest star was Barry McGuire, who claimed that he and Mamas and the Papas founder John Phillips co-wrote the Kingston Trio hit “Greenback Dollar” (though the Wikipedia page on the Kingston Trio said it was Hoyt Axton — whose career got a weird boost from his mom having co-written “Heartbreak Hotel,[1]” which Axton covered on his own first solo album, Hoyt Axton Explodes!, on Vee-Jay), which McGuire performed with them.

The Kingston Trio’s music remains folk-lite, sometimes heavier than that (they had the first hit on Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” which has a complicated history — it was originally a poem by Russian author Boris Shtokolov which Seeger set to music; later Marlene Dietrich commissioned a German translation so she could perform it on her German tours and make her former countrymen acutely aware of what she thought of her native land’s militaristic history; and when Joan Baez recorded it she covered Dietrich’s German version!) — “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was the climax of the concert (and the Trio also recorded “Blowin’ in the Wind,” though that seems more like Capitol wanting a version that would compete with Bob Dylan’s original on Columbia and Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit on Warner Bros.). Most of the Kingston Trio’s repertoire on last night’s program was familiar — “Tijuana Jail,” “Chilly Winds” (with a beautiful vocal countermelody by Christian), the novelty “Rev. Mr. Black” that interpolates “You Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley,” “Raspberries, Strawberries and Good Wine,” “Scarlet Ribbons” (weighed down by Bob Shane, Al Jardine and the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmidt on guest vocals — Harry Belafonte’s version remains unsurpassable to me), and “The Sinking of the ‘Reuben James’.” There was one song I wouldn’t have identified as Kingston Trio material: the haunting country ballad “Long Black Veil,” written in 1959 bu Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin — the announcement identified Wilkin as the first woman ever admitted to the Country Music Hall of Fame (ahead of Sara and Maybelle Carter or Patsy Montana? That seems unbelievable!) — and first recorded by Lefty Frizzell (a dramatic departure from his usual honky-tonk style), though I know it mostly from the versions by Joan Baez (even though she sang a lyric obviously intended for a man without any changes) and Johnny Cash (who covered it on his Live at Folsom Prison album — an odd sort of live concept album in which, instead of just coming in and doing his regular concert set, he cherry-picked his repertoire and focused on songs about crime and prison). The Kingstons were hardly in the same league as Cash and Baez — they took the song too fast and lost the plaintive quality (it’s a song, after all, about a man who agrees to plead guilty to murder and be executed because he can’t bear to tell the truth — that he was having sex with his best friend’s wife when the crime was committed) — but it was still an interesting byway on a quite pleasant and engaging music program.

[1] — Actually Mae Boren Axton was the sole composer of “Heartbreak Hotel,” though she put her friend Tommy Durden’s name on the song as co-writer because he agreed to make the demo record that convinced Elvis Presley to record it as his first major-label release — and thanks to Col. Parker’s ironclad insistence on taking cut-in credits on virtually everything Elvis recorded, Elvis’s name got listed as a “co-writer” as well.