Monday, April 12, 2010

Chad Mitchell Trio -- Then & Now

Then & Now
Trio Productions

I spent an interesting – and surprisingly enjoyable – evening recently watching Then & Now, a 3-DVD set documenting, through commentaries, conversations and performances, the history of the Chad Mitchell Trio, one of the most venerable of the commercial folk boom groups.

The first of the three DVDs compiles clips from the many television shows – Bell Telephone Hour, Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, etc. – the trio did during their heyday in the early-to-mid-1960s. Watching them sing poignant songs like “Dona Dona,” topical songs like “The John Birch Society,” kids’ songs like Tom Paxton’s “The Marvelous Toy,” and all manner of tightly arranged traditional folksongs was made easy by the quality and cleverness of the singing and vocal arrangements, and by the fact that they always surrounded themselves with such topflight instrumental accompanists as Roger McGuinn (then Jim McGuinn) and Paul Prestopino. While much of these period pieces might seem dated by today’s standards, listening in the context of the times allowed me to enjoy the songs – and the conversations of trio members Chad Mitchell, Joe Frazier and Mike Kobluk which are inserted throughout the DVD.

One of the things that personally interested me in the three earliest clips from the ‘60s was seeing McGuinn as the trio’s accompanist on banjo and guitar. Roger, of course, went on to make folk-rock history as leader of the Byrds and then as a noted solo artist who I’ve had the chance to produce a couple of concerts with at the Golem in the 1980s, and have as a guest on Folk Roots/Folk Branches in 1998. He couldn’t have been much more than 20 or so playing beside a tuxedoed or tie-and-jacketed Chad Mitchell Trio in 1961-’62.

Chad Mitchell left the trio in 1965 and the trio continued for a time as the Mitchell Trio with the young John Denver as the third member.

In 1987, Chad Mitchell, Joe Frazier and Mike Kobluk came together for a reunion concert that was recorded for a PBS fundraiser and that comprises the second DVD in the set. Maybe it was the superior recording quality, but the Chad Mitchell Trio sounded better to me in 1987 than they did in the ‘60s. The harmonies and arrangements are as good, or better, than ever and there seems to be a greater depth to the interpretations.

Each of the three also steps forward with a solo performance. Mike does a sweet version of Charles Badger Clark’s “Spanish is a Loving Tongue,” Chad does well with Yip Harburg’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” and Joe does a powerful version of Bruce Cockburn’s then-very-topical “Nicaragua,” a brave and compelling choice for a reunion concert during the days of the Reagan Administartion.

Toward the end of the concert, Chad Mitchell steps out for a song to be replaced – as he was in 1965 – by John Denver who sings a really nice version of “For Baby (For Bobbie),” a song they sang together as Mitchell Trio (and the first John Denver song ever to be recorded) with Joe and Mike.

All four – Chad, Mike, Joe and John – sing the finale, Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” their standard closer, together.

Twenty years after that reunion concert – and almost a half-century since they first performed together – the Chad Mitchell Trio came together again in 2007 for two concerts that are seamlessly edited together as the third DVD in the set.

Earlier, I said the trio sounded better to me in 1987 than they did in the 1960s. Well, they also sounded even better to me in 2007 than in 1987 as they work their way through a familiar repertoire of traditional and contemporary folk standards including lovely versions of Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds,” Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind” and Woody Guthrie’s “Great Historical Bum.

Speaking of Tom Paxton, the Chad Mitchell Trio sang a lot of Tom’s songs during their run in the 1960s (and, circa 1960, the young Tom actually auditioned for the spot in the trio filled by Joe Frazier) and he joins them late in the concert for a really nice version of his classic “I Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound,” and for the closer, “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.”

Watching the DVDs was, to be sure, an exercise in Mighty Wind-type nostalgia for the commercial folk era. But it was also a reminder that the Chad Mitchell Trio – like Peter, Paul and Mary, like the Weavers, like Ian and Sylvia – had something very special that transcended their commercialism and that deepened greatly over time.

--Mike Regenstreif

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