While he thoroughly enjoyed the vintage performances, Judge Bill Gibron wishes there was more social commentary as part of this interesting look at the folk revival icons.
Long time passing…
The tale of The Kingston Trio's rise is not so unusual. A couple of buddies from Hawaii make it over to the mainland, decide to chase their melodious muse, and wind up recruiting another college chum as accompaniment. Fascinated by folk music, the boys begin playing old favorites from decades past. As the beatnik craze continues unabated, radical reinterpretations of all modes are suddenly seen as cool and hip. Without warning, the newly named trio's take on the condemned-man classic "Tom Dooley" becomes a massive hit and, thanks to their clean-cut image and no-nonsense dedication to their art, the boys themselves are overnight sensations. Constant touring and appearances on the fledgling medium of television skyrocket their fame—and their notoriety. After a disagreement about direction, founding member Dave Guard leaves the group to investigate his own personal passions. Remaining musicians Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds recruit the like-minded John Stewart, and the reconfigured group goes on to weather several more years of success. But once the Beatles and the British Invasion arrive on American shores, folk turns flat and the Trio eventually disbands. They attempt various comebacks over the next few decades, but none of the non-original "versions" match the unrestrained popularity of their first fits of fame.
No, that narrative is not all that compelling. A Mighty Wind may have highlighted how clichéd it is by unearthing ways to mock and satirize it, but the typical saga of success and shifting cultural trends is representative of most music bios. What makes the Kingston Trio's version so compelling, however, is what their rise signified socially—and politically—in an era that viewed anything other than conservative conformity as radicalized and destructive. Yes, there was a point where the Kingston Trio was deemed "controversial"—perhaps even "subversive"—only allowed to continue forward thanks to the members' well-groomed frat boy looks and genial, genuine approach to performance. Unlike Pete Seeger and the rest of the Weavers, who purposefully avoided the tag of scandal to sell their sonic wares, the Trio took the tactic of delivering everything, from novelty to pure protest, with an earnest awareness that allowed all seditious undercurrent to seem safe and sunny. Even an obvious slam on the Vietnam War like the classic rendition of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" seems positively poetic when filtered through the trio's sober, sensitive style. With a fine flair for the dramatic mixed with a knowledge that nothing's as powerful as a good song played really well, the Trio targeted the last bastion of possible free thinking—the college campus—and proceeded to lay the groundwork for the entertainment revolution to arrive in the 1960s.
Only mentioned in passing as part of this obvious PBS fund-raising feature (thankfully, said genre appears to finally be moving out of the doo-wop era), the competing themes of the music's historical significance vs. the growing discontent within the post-War United States are left languishing in favor of more and more performance pieces. Now, there is nothing wrong with such an approach—fans and the uninformed could probably care less about the symbolic status of the group, and would prefer to groove on its tremendous acoustic harmonizing. With accompaniment consisting of guitars (and occasional banjo) and nothing but natural singing voices as supplement, the Trio were tremendous artists. These singers could impart amazing levels of emotion with just the interaction of their varying styles and always used the flat, intricate tones of their instrument to underscore the sentiment. Sometimes, the songs they sung were obscure and slightly strange (both "Scotch and Soda" and "Raspberries, Strawberries" remain unlikely hits), while at other moments, we bask in the joy of three men truly embracing the magic of song.
Still, we'd love to hear how a simple tune from the '20s was viewed as a vicious attack on the '60s social order or how the surrounding beatnik culture that nurtured such a sonic statement became a political pariah. Today, we'd laugh at such a silly sentiment (unless, of course, it is rap at the center of the firestorm). This important bit of history may be left hanging, but with all the good music being made, we hardly care. Indeed, The Kingston Trio Story: Wherever We May Go isn't out to uncover the situational strife the band found itself in both before and after their success. No, it merely wants to highlight a series of sensational performances by a somewhat forgotten force in pre-'60s aural activism. While there is nothing wrong with such a superficial approach, there is much more to the group's import than a few stellar singles. At the core of the Kingston Trio was an interesting lesson about the closed-minded mentality of the '50s. Sadly, the story needs to be saved for another time.
Shout! Factory's presentation of this terrific title is interesting on several levels. First and foremost, several of the kinescope performances have been run through a new digital enhancement program, and the results are astounding. What used to look washed-out and worn is now vibrant and alive, like watching the performance for the very first time. There's a featurette on the DVD that shows how the process works and it's really remarkable. Similarly, some of the history we crave is presented in documentary appendixes. A few deal with the actual songs themselves, while others focus on the band, the break-up, and the eventual reunions during the '80s and '90s. Along with some clever 7-Up commercials the guys made at the height of their career and a look at manager Frank Werber, a man constantly cited as the "fourth" member of the Trio, the added content here is excellent. It more than makes up for the lack of depth in the feature presentation. Add in the respectable tech specs—excellent 1.33:1 full-screen image and terrific Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mixes—and you've got a great overall package.
While it's nice to know that there is more to the Trio's tale than a collection of credible hits and a few dust-ups with authority, there is a big-picture that's sadly lacking here. While music can make up for some of the substance, The Kingston Trio was far more important, culturally, than this nice overview suggests. Here's hoping the whole story gets told one day.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• "Stories Behind The Songs" Featurette
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