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Never Better
Dave Guard's Last Shows With The Kingston Trio
Bad Times But Good Show in Santa Monica

(If you’re unfamiliar with the KT, read here first.  Because I don’t want to rewrite it.)




Bad Times But Good Show in Santa Monica


Text Box:  Three weeks before his departure was announced in April of 1961, Dave Guard did one of his last shows with the Kingston Trio at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. 


It somehow was recorded in high fidelity monophonic and – except for a few red line issues that was the penalty of the pre-set recording back then, the Kingston Trio really never sounded better.  In a CD made from that tape just released by Collector’s Choice Music, the Kingston Trio answers a lot of questions, both for the scholars that inexplicably avoid them like a live grenade and the increasingly embarrassing Fanboys who idolize them on their several message board sites.  They were awfully good back in the day, before monitor speakers, parametric equalizers, and professional mediators.  They had only their ears, their athleticism to move around at the single microphone for hours, and booze.  Men were men, back then.


The primary question that is put aright and answered is whether the Trio went downhill from Guard’s departure and his initial replacement by John Stewart.  Stewart always indicated he’d thought so, solely because Guard was unique (and Stewart idolized him), but Stewart’s years in the group coughed up hits as well, although the Trio never again were the monsters they were for the four years of Guard’s participation in sales or presence.  But I don’t think you can argue that the Trio – in their exhaustion and mutual animosity that evening – were the best they have ever sounded doing some of their more difficult tunes.  The songs got simpler with Stewart (not his fault), but were getting jazz like under Guard.  The point being, even with the opposition, the Trio was growing musically.


There were also changes in the Trio’s stage presentation with Stewart as well as types of songs: they slowly and then rapidly slid into Vegas act routines and away from the collegiate wit and bizarre riffs of the Guard years.  They verged on the cusp of Deep Blue humor by their final shows, but didn’t actually cross the line till years later when only Bob Shane was still with the group.  They were very funny, very good, and very professional, but the sleaze was more than mere fringing on the striped shirts when Stewart waxed on about Carol Doda.   They were no longer even trying to appear innocent at that point, which might be expected, given their age. 


But the answer to the question is ‘yes’: the Kingston Trio was never better than with Dave Guard, and the reason is clear and shining through this quite impressive concert.


First, the Guard trio did two shows that night, and were apparently totally different.  I think this because for the first number, Nick Reynolds corrects Bob Shane’s placement, probably unnecessary if they were just repeating the show, and gets curt with Guard.  Then, Shane screws up the intro to Run, Molly, Run, but these guys always were so exhausted (three albums, 300 nights singing a year) it’s neither surprising nor condemnable.  But, man, these guys could sing, and sing strong.  They were jocks, after all.


They blew the house open with a number the audience – I can safely tell you – had never heard before, and would not appear till their final album was released two months later in June, when the Trio’s breakup was plastered across the media and killed sales.  Shane, intentionally or not, screws up his verse and the wrong horse won.


They continued the set missing their four or five biggest hits to that point.  Tom Dooley?  Nope.  MTA, Tijuana Jail, El Matador, Worried Man, and Scotch and Soda also not there.  They did songs from every album but the third (At Large) and fourth (Here We Go Again) which, given they were two of the four albums they had in the top ten one week, is an admission of great strength to discard.  I have no indication they dared do that with Stewart, and some really exhausted “…handdunyahead Tom Dooley!” were inexplicably committed to vinyl again and again in those years as proof. 


It’s not that they didn’t do much new material with Stewart – they did - it’s that I don’t know if they’d have done sets with not ONE of their hits in them, with just obscure if great tunes (Guardo El Lobo counts, here) and some long favored album cuts (Zombie Jamboree) and proven crowd pleasers (Coplas). 


Guard – for whatever reason – sings lead in three of the songs (Zombie, You Don’t Knock, and Saints), but his presence is such he seems to have stolen the other tunes as well, even when he’s just one of the three singing separate verses.  The showstopper is They Call the Wind Maria, which Bob Shane does wonderfully and brings down the house.  Guard plays lead guitar and sings backup, and Nick Reynolds plays percussion and does not sing.  Interesting cut, Maria…..


There is great speed tension in this song which becomes apparent when it resolves into a major key, with someone – I’m betting Guard – trying to keep it slower and Shane trying to speed up the last part, which is done faster than the previous two thirds of the song.  The tension is palpable and disconcerting when you realize the personal animosity between the two at that point, but it also renders the song much, much better than the alternative, which would be giving Shane control of his own solo.  As Stewart did.


In the two cd concert called Snapshot, recorded four years later but released only within the last year, the Stewart Trio does Maria and ends up doing it much, much faster.  It may have worked better in concert (the audience sure loved it, but no more than at Santa Monica) but it sounds nearly cartoonish with just the audio.  An echoed “Maria!” has to be done so fast it sounds like rather ludicrous to this listener.  There was a discipline gone that I think Guard could exert and Stewart could not, or did not.  Whatever it was, I think it worked to the detriment of Bob Shane.  Shane has never sounded better than on the Santa Monica album.


Contrary to the dismal liner notes, written by a Stewart enthusiast, Guard does not hog the mike, does not sing most leads.  Reynolds seems to be at the mike a lot, and most songs are group efforts.  This is arguably Shane’s album.   His melodic lead – with the remarkable backing vocals in non-folk harmony – on Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies (an album cut from Make Way, a lesser seller) is better than in the studio version, and the guitar work (Buck Wheat did it on the studio version, who was their backup bassist) clean, tasteful, and excellent.  I’d always thought Guard had done it, but no.


Oddly, there is a running gay joke theme through the early part of the show, and Shane gets one of the bigger laughs with his judge verdict in Reynold’s Bad Man’s Blunder.   


Colorado Trail, another slow mover from String Along, while a group effort trading vocals, is also Shane’s, the whiskey voice as perfect for the slow gait of a burro or exhausted horse along a valley rim.


A cut from their Christmas album (Last Month of the Year) is unleashed in this version, and sounded incredibly good and energetic.  The audience went bonkers.  Guard tries an unsuccessful harmony at one point, but it still works.


Text Box:  And then, Guardo El Lobo.  Better than the album version, and hot.  The audience loved it.  While Guard starts it and played the tambourine, it is a Trio song, and all three sound enthused and into it.  Again: 15th century Spanish.  Guard felt it swung, and it does.


Guard does a great job on You Don’t Knock, but it is Shane’s vocal response that makes it work.  It may pain Shane to hear it, but he and Guard sing well together, bringing out the best in their voices.  Maria proves it, but on any song the two of them sing together alone.  Reynolds and Shane have a more boilerplate vocal relationship that is the predominant sound, but with Guard everyone sounded better.  Stewart, and this is nothing he hasn’t said, brought different strengths; he doesn’t have a versatile voice although he forced the parts of Guard and found his own comfort level in his years with the Trio.


Included on the CD is a video of the Pat Boone television special where the Trio did You’re Gonna Miss Me, a Frankie and Johnnie variant that is one of their very best but on their last and poorly selling album with Guard.  On camera, Dave Guard suffered from the horrors of early contact lenses and a stage makeup that sometime made him appear kabuki like.  On some of the film or videos in that era, Guard spends his time on camera looking as if he’s sending coded messages by blinks and facial stretching, which does his over shaded eyes no good.  Other times he looks normal.  Shane and Reynolds didn’t have that problem, Shane opting for blindness rather then wearing glasses or contacts and neither seemed to have the makeup problems Guard did.  I have no explanation.


But the quality of this video with Boone is terrific, although Shane nearly physically recoils from Guard’s presence till he gets into it.  And they sound great.  So good, that during the recorded Santa Monica concert a week after, Pat Boone was hauled up on stage, given Shane’s four string banjo which was played like a ukulele or the first four strings of the guitar.  Guard can be heard giving chord corrections, but the four of them had a ball and left that impression.


I don’t recall such an adventurous set with Stewart, or any subsequent Trio or, frankly, any big act since able to avoid the cliché hits.  The Kingston Trio with Dave Guard may have been a tough experience for the other two, but the product was their best.


One odd thing that bugs me.  There is a female shill on this record, the prolonged laugher, who is identical to the laughing woman on the live albums recorded at the Hungry i, at least prior to the final show album from 1967 I haven’t yet heard.  The laugh sounds identical and I wonder if this was true or shocking coincidence by a devoted admirer.  I suspect it would be true, given the expense of a bad show for lack of a spark. 


But there’s another thing that bugs me as well.  The Trio was, coincidently under Guard or not, both Cool and Pop at the same time, and it never happened again and probably could not, being a product of the Fifties and the demographics recovering from two wars.  Being fans of the Trio did not set off alarms with parents.  When Youth bifurcated the two again, the Trio’s misfortune was to be, for the most part, disdained by the cutting edge that replaced them as they were by the far left who once, briefly, embraced them but at least tolerated them and accepted the cash their sales provided.  And today, their highly reduced fan base are the elderly who were, in their youth, as boring and predictable as the Trio – from not dissimilar but generally more privileged background – was not. 


A too perfect example cannot be shaken from my mind.  A participant of a Trio message board, trying to explain how much the Trio meant to him, told with hushed breath of how, when he had moved, he hand carried this autographed Trio relic to his new home.  He wanted people to know that.  The poster, clueless, continued to explain that he did the same to…….his autographed accounting texts from college as well.  This was, I recall, during a period when posters were trying to implant the notion that Bob Shane’s political views were just like theirs, and ……and….they were just like him and so …… they themselves were cool.  So cool.  (I think this may be the same poster who extended his name to reveal his Catholic background and saints names when The Passion of the Christ was in the news and discussed on the forum site.  He retreated back to two names and an initial after.  These are insecure people.)


The likelihood of Shane, Reynolds, or Guard 1.) obtaining autographs by the authors of their college accounting texts or 2.) thinking highly, if at all, of the sorts who would proudly acquire such is about nil, I’d think, were the authors as famous as Colbert or Bob Cratchett.  Shane is remarkably not sentimental, and has offered to sell virtually anything for the right price as demonstrative of a professed, hard nosed business ethic.  Partly pose, I suspect, but Reynolds met him when, I recall, Shane slept through an accounting class at Menlo. 


I continually bring this up because it’s clear to me that at this point, the Trio is stuck in a local bar they own.  There is still a large, potentially reverential audience of the young who’d still be impressed by the roots music aspect and hard work and competence of the Kingston Trio, but the old farts who need the Trio for their own self esteem – the bar regulars who thrill to white, uniformed, non-rock, non socially or politically threatening types in everything – won’t let their grasp slip and force out new blood.  They don’t want the group in its current configuration to greatly expand the repertoire, nor anyone tell the true story of the Trio until its dusted and patted into digestible shape for their benefit.  They want the Trio and its heritage to somehow celebrate themselves.


It’s too bad, because the Trio tells a great deal of the story of a traumatized nation, with millions of shell shocked vets, a technologically and wealthy population coming to grips with new social paradigms utterly unforeseen.  It is an illustrative example of how pop stars insert themselves in public conscience by presence and pose, not entirely performance and stage presentation or content. 


And then, of course, the product itself, intended solely for recording, or unknowingly so destined as this revealing and impressive cd shows.

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