Road Rave

Since The Kingston Trio has been hitting America's highways--including a certain fabled stretch that passes through the great desert southwest--for four decades, what headline act could be more appropriate for Flagstaff's Route 66 Celebration? Touring an average of 28 weeks a year, the Trio still makes a joyful acoustic noise with banjos, guitars and three-part harmonies, singing the folk songs that made it internationally famous. Songs like "Tom Dooley," "Greenback Dollar," "M.T.A." and "Scotch and Soda" are as much a part of American pop history as Route 66 itself.

These are the guys who set off (in Martin Mull's phrase) "the great folk-music scare" of the late '50s. If not for their clean-cut, collegiate, noncontroversial approach, America's airwaves may have remained closed to the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary or Bob Dylan. The group's image helped '50s-era program directors overlook that "Tom Dooley" was actually a morbid tale of a man awaiting his hanging for a brutal murder. The song found its way onto the charts and became a multimillion seller back in the days when selling one million was a major accomplishment.

The Trio's original lineup of Bob Shane, Dave Guard and Nick Reynolds formed in 1958. Longtime Valley favorite John Stewart replaced Guard in 1961, and the group continued until its dissolution in 1967. Shane reorganized the Trio soon thereafter and has kept its name alive ever since. George Grove joined in the '70s, and Nick Reynolds returned in 1988.

The Kingston Trio gives the fans what they want--all the hits, just as you remember them, with lots of banter, jokes and general good humor mixed in. Yes, it's a formula, but the band members have it down to a science. Indeed, some of the topical jokes aren't so topical anymore. The "ad-libs" I heard at a Gammage show a few years ago sounded awfully familiar two years later at The Sundome.

But it's the songs that draw the crowds, and the Trio does them all. Up-tempo, driving rhythm numbers like "Hard, Ain't It Hard" and "A Worried Man" sit beside quieter pieces such as "Early Morning Rain" and Shane's solo showcase folk-bar anthem, "Scotch and Soda." The last is a great example of the benefits of all those years on the road. When it was originally recorded on the Trio's first album some 40 years ago, it was a pretty little song performed by a young man with a pleasant voice. But Shane has since grown into the song--it's now a perfect vehicle for the husky-voiced road warrior to ruminate about life's regrets. This was never a young man's song, and it's always a pleasure to hear the mature Shane's gravelly voice tell the story.

The Kingston Trio isn't the only reason to head north for the three-day fest honoring the storied "Mother Road" that once stretched across 2,400 miles and eight states, and served as America's Main Street before being supplanted by the interstate highway system. Nostalgic road revelers can recall the route in its heyday at this weekend's huge festival, held in the Thorpe Park softball complex from 3:30 p.m. Friday, June 5--when it's opened with proper pomp by bagpipers--through the evening of Sunday, June 7. Hundreds of classic, vintage autos are displayed from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, June 6, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Other planned fun includes carnival rides, arts and crafts, international food booths and live entertainment by top national and regional acts. Those include the Groove Merchants at 8:30 p.m. Friday, preceded by Samba at 6 p.m. and Steve Reynolds and the Nightcrawlers at 7 p.m. Cadillac Angels open the show for Highway 101 at 6 p.m. Saturday. Johnny Mack warms up the crowd at 4:30 p.m. Sunday for the Kingston Trio, which takes the stage at 5:30 p.m. Daytime admission is free. Evening concert admissions: The Kingston Trio is $13 in advance, $15 the day of the show; Groove Merchants, $5 in advance, $7 the day of the show; the Highway 101/Cadillac Angels concert, $7 in advance, $9 the day of the show. Tickets are available at Dillard's (503-5555). For further festival info, call 1-520-774-1330.

--David Gofstein