(June 5, 2014; THE FOX THEATRE, Saint Louis, MO)
Any band that was a significant part of your youth is one that you tend to make allowances for, years later, if they continue to make music. The memories you associate with their songs, the deep familiarity of their music and personas, means you are predisposed to love their show and surrender to the excitement as you did all those years ago. Such is the case for me with the Monkees, a band second only to the Beatles in their pervasive impact on my life in the mid to late ’60s. The first riff I ever played on a guitar was that of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” The album PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED was on constant rotation in 1967 in my circles. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was no less than an anthem. And my favorite Monkees song of all, a Mike Nesmith tune called “Tapioca Tundra,” could very well serve as the soundtrack for my childhood, those peak carefree days of fun TV shows (THE MONKEES among them), innocent crushes, bicycle rides and, always, neighborhood games with my pals. A whole slew of memories are conjured by the spectacle of seeing the Monkees live in concert, and for this tour, with the previously MIA Mike Nesmith leading the charge, things were bound to be interesting. And they were, definitely.
This isn’t the space to discuss the many reasons why Nesmith came aboard only after the band’s heartthrob, Davy Jones, passed away unexpectedly in 2012. It can certainly be said that Nesmith was always a champion for the Monkees’ musicianship and control over their legacy, and perhaps he felt both needed to be reasserted and “freshened up” after the Vegas-style theatricality of several previous Monkees tours that were certainly Jones-centric. Having seen at least half a dozen previous Monkees shows, I can say with confidence that the goofing around and animated stage patter the band is known for was dramatically lessened at their Fox show, relegated to continuous clips from their TV show that screened both during and between their performances. Sometimes these clips were hysterical, sometimes they were monotonous, but they reminded you of where these four guys came from and what they were called upon to do, at least from 1966 until their disastrous (commercially speaking) movie, HEAD, ended one phase of their career. Nesmith, with thinning hair and wearing a dapper white jacket over a Sun Records t-shirt, was a quietly commanding presence at this show. He didn’t say that much, nor did the expression on his face change much, but he was authoritative and he meant business, musically speaking.
After a slightly tame “Last Train to Clarksville” got things under way (Micky Dolenz sings that one), Nesmith took the mic for quite a handful of tunes: “Papa Gene’s Blues” (an early country-ish outing; Nes was a pioneer of what came to be known as country rock), “The Kind of Girl I Could Love,” “Sweet Young Thing,” “You Told Me,” “Sunny Girlfriend” and more. Fans hadn’t gotten to hear these songs performed live, for the most part; with Davy’s stuff out, with rare exceptions, the set could be reconfigured to accommodate Nesmith’s many fine compositions. If Nes didn’t move much on stage, however, the same can’t be said of the amazing Mister Dolenz, dressed sharp in gray hat and suit, and always ready for his closeup. Dolenz is acknowledged as the finest singer in the band, and he is a consummate entertainer, involving the audience, shimmying from one side of the stage to the next, and belting out classics like “I’m a Believer,” “She” and the utterly peerless “Goin’ Down” with dedication and real joy. He’s clearly happy to be doing this, all these years later, and he always hits those high notes, sometimes to shivery effect. On “Shades of Gray,” a tender ballad where Dolenz shares the vocal duties with Peter Tork, he wryly grabbed a tuft of Peter Tork’s hair as the “shades of gray” chorus came up for the third time; not everyone saw this, but it was a more subtle brand of goofiness than what we’ve seen before.
And speaking of Tork, fans were NOT cheated out of seeing him in the spotlight; there was “Your Auntie Grizelda” (a weird song, even now), “For Pete’s Sake” (which featured Tork introducing the song with a speech about how badly the group wanted to make and play on their own records in the ’60s; Tork declared that the band “were guilty only of NOT being the Beatles, also true of 6 billion other people”), and a rousing “Can You Dig It,” among others. Hits such as “I’m A Believer” and “ …Steppin’ Stone” naturally thrilled the audience, but in terms of musical ecstasy, it was the tunes from HEAD that delivered the biggest impact. “The Porpoise Song” was transcendent, preceded by clips from the infamous film, then easing into a thrilling Dolenz vocal and all the psychedelic layering a fan could reasonably expect. What Monkees fan doesn’t get a shiver from that “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye” refrain? Even better was “As We Go Along,” a truly beautiful song featuring clips of band members wandering through serene landscapes and Dolenz nailing the vocal to the wall in a perfect sonic picture frame. Fun fact: this tune in its recorded version is one of four the Monkees recorded with a young Neil Young adding guitar to the sessions. “Circle Sky” was a chance for Nesmith to rock out more than usual, but I thought he was even better on “The Door Into Summer” and the classic “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round”. The band wanted a big, well-adorned sound for this show: on “Mary, Mary,” four pairs of shakers were utilized by the added musicians on the tour (an ensemble that included Micky’s sister Coco and Nesmith’s son Christian). Female harmonies insured a properly lush vocal sound when needed, and though Mickey played drums fairly often, most of the percussive duties fell to a second drummer that was added.
Some other highlights included a vibrant “Randy Scouse Git,” the Jones gem “Daydream Believer,” in which, touchingly, all three remaining Monkees took a verse (encouraging the audience to belt out the chorus), and a poignant clip of Jones effectively punctuated the tune, and the closing encore of “Listen to the Band” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” I was disappointed that “Tapioca Tundra,” while played, seemed to get short shrift in the arrangement department; it sounded tossed off here and lost the eerie melancholy of the original. Some of the vocals here and there were also hard to understand (Tork didn’t always intone his lyrics clearly), and the sound was almost subdued at times. It wouldn’t have killed the band to turn things up here and there and just madly rock. But professional? Yes indeed. Musically diverse? Check. Generous with serving up both hits and deep album cuts? You betcha. There’s no doubt that Mike Nesmith added a whole new dimension to this version of the Monkees onstage, and he’s a crucial balance to the madcap antics that sometimes went overboard in the past. There’s also no doubt that Micky Dolenz is an amazing singer and the real focal point of this band. He just IS. A real BAND was on stage at the Fox Theatre, playing and singing their hearts out, and offering more classics than most bands have in their entire repertoire. How amazing that the Monkees can still surprise after all these years. They’re the old generation. And they got something to say!