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Kingston Trio delights BPO audience with nostalgic folk tour of the '60s

The Kingston Trio, the legendary folk group that played with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra this weekend, has its own peculiar longevity.

The three guys on stage at Kleinhans Music Hall weren't the original members. But they may as well have been. George Grove, who plays guitar and banjo, has been with the group 30 years, which is good enough for me. Bill Zorn and Rick Dougherty used to be with the Limeliters. Also note that Zorn, who used to be a member of the New Christy Minstrels -- a tribute to the old-time Buffalo group -- belonged to the Kingston Trio in the '70s. It's a long story. Folk groups usually are. So let's get down to the music.

Under the direction of Associate Conductor Robert Franz, the BPO began with a spirited first half that included, but was not limited to, Gershwin's "Cuban Overture" and the music from the Johnny Depp movie "Pirates of the Caribbean." How great that mainstream movies still use big, epic symphonic soundtracks.

After intermission, the Kingston Trio strode out without pomp or preamble and launched into "Corey, Corey." Grove contributed fine, rapid-fire banjo picking. It was like turning the clock back to the '60s.

"Don't feel overwhelmed by the symphonic setting," Zorn said, adding that people should feel free to sing along. And they did. High up in the balcony was what amounted to a very competent chorus, featuring some good soprano voices.

The hits kept on coming, to quote Zorn, who more or less behaves as the group's spokesman. And the orchestra participated.

Sometimes it's hard to make the orchestra relevant to music like this. The Kingston Trio does fine on its own, and at times, the strings and horns could give the songs a dated, jukebox feel. Occasionally, the force of the orchestra threatened to swallow the folkies whole.

In general, though, it worked OK. Grove reportedly does the orchestral arrangements himself, and he showed some sensitivity. "MTA," the hilarious song about the guy named Charlie who doesn't have a nickel and so can't get off the Boston subway, was set off by mocking trombones. "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," done as a gentle encore, gained tenderness from the BPO's horn section.

Zorn, Grove and Dougherty laughed unashamedly about their age, explaining to "the young people in the audience" what records and jukeboxes were. "And to us, young people means anyone under the age of 50," Zorn joked.

"The Reverend Mr. Black," "The Road to Freedom" and "Tom Dooley" all flashed past in a flurry of strumming and picking. The sodden jazz ballad "Scotch and Soda," a long-ago hit for the trio, was a change of pace.

Led by Zorn, the band kept the jokes as well as the hits coming.

"This is a song everyone has heard. Name any camp, they've sung it. Name any folk group, they've sung it. Any 12-step program, they've sung it," the trio joshed, introducing "This Land Is Your Land."

It's wonderful that the BPO brings in groups like this. With the Tralf pretty much out of commission, I'm not sure we would have any other opportunity to hear the Kingston Trio. And the audience seemed grateful, cheering these veterans of the golden age of folk.

Next season's pops lineup, which Franz let us in on, will continue to offer talent we would never catch elsewhere. Neil Sedaka is reportedly on the schedule, and Judy Collins. The amazing pianist Peter Nero will kick off the pops season in the fall.

The Kingston Trio, meanwhile, is certainly one of the highlights of this year's season.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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