(THE FAMILY ARENA, Saint Charles, MO; March 16, 2019)
Nostalgia is a powerful, mysterious phenomenon. It’s the reason we jump at the chance to see musicians we grew up with, and why we get all emotional when we revisit places that were significant to us at one time in our lives, places that likely have changed significantly. To know that something CONTINUES, even if it’s not the same, gets to something primal in our natures. I’ve seen the Monkees about five times, always reveling in this journey back into my childhood, when songs like “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Tapioca Tundra” were soundtracks for good times. I never cared what some critics said, ie: They were a “manufactured TV show band,” blah blah blah. The music stood up for me, and I adore it to this day. PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES LIMITED remains a favorite album of the ‘60s. But the significance of Peter Tork’s recent death shouldn’t be underestimated. Although the Monkees were still very much a going concern after Davy Jones passed, doing a new tour every couple of years, it seemed, with every bit of their madcap humor and chemistry still intact, something perceptibly shifted. Now they were TWO. And Mike Nesmith had pretty much been the lone holdout for the reunion tours, doing only a couple of shows here and there, and agreeing to join a “full” tour only after Jones died, perhaps for his own nostalgic reasons. A band based largely on nostalgia, with a very distinct and popular chemistry, will often survive after the loss of one member. But TWO key members, one of whom was among the two most versatile musicians in the outfit? Are you still a “going concern” after that?
My answer is: Not really. Although I loved seeing Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith together at the Family Arena (and let’s be clear, this tour was booked BEFORE Peter Tork died), it didn’t really feel like the Monkees to me. Something was different. It was “the Mike and Micky Show,” exactly how it was billed. And yes, the classic songs were served up, just as fans expected. But the energy was different, the VIBE was different. There is a music brand, “The Monkees,” that will carry on and still sell records. But I just don’t think there is a “Monkees group” anymore. Not without Peter Tork. And that makes me sad.
The show itself, though, was pleasantly entertaining. I have one odd, substantial complaint, though. The sound was NOT loud enough. I rarely feel this way at shows; usually it’s the opposite.. But I really, REALLY wanted the music to be louder. On a scale of 1 to 10 (or “11” if you’re Spinal Tap), the sound was at about “5” for most of the show, occasionally making it up to “6.” And that puzzled me. It reduced the energy level substantially. That said, it was a delight to see Micky in his dapper black suit and hat, and Mike in his jeans and black shirt come strolling out to the stage, all smiles. They opened with “Good Clean Fun” and “Last Train to Clarksville,” the latter a song so infectious and familiar that anyone growing up in that era has to get an instant charge from it. Whatever cynical comments made about the Monkees in some quarters, no one can deny they didn’t utilize top-notch songwriters: Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Neil Diamond, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Harry Nilsson and more. They may have started as a music-making MACHINE, but it was a machine that worked splendidly. “Sunny Girlfriend” and a peppy “Mary, Mary” were next, the latter song benefitting from the added background vocals of Micky’s sister Coco (a regular in the band on most recent tours) and the lovely Circe Link, who has her own project going with Christian Nesmith (Mike’s son and a member of this entourage). All of us in the audience were, of course, waiting for an acknowledgment of Tork’s passing, and that came when the band performed Tork’s fantastic song “For Pete’s Sake,” which Micky mentioned was the closing song for season 2 of the original TV show. Footage of Tork was shown on the giant screen, and Micky referred to him as “our pal” I think, I couldn’t quite hear. A Nesmith-sung tune from PISCES… made me smile: “The Door Into Summer,” which Nes sang with relish. In fact, it’s worth mentioning what an upbeat mood Nes seemed to be throughout the show, cracking jokes, making odd little gestures and stage antics, even making fun of himself for needing his i-Pad to remember all the old lyrics. He muffed the timing of things a few times, which I found sort of endearing, but the audience may not have noticed it. After a rather low-energy “A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You” and “You Just May Be the One,” the show finally reached a couple of genuine highlights for me. Micky talked about 2016’s superb GOOD TIMES album, truly a miracle in retrospect, with its mix of newly discovered songs from the vaults and tunes penned by fresh new writers like Ben Gibbard, Andy Partridge and the combo of Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller. That unlikely pair wrote “Birth of an Accidental Hipster,” which Dolenz and Nesmith sank their musical teeth into, the band rising to a slightly higher sonic level along with them. It was just fabulous. And then, the shivers for me when a Nes-less Dolenz sang “As We Go Along,” one of my very favorite Monkees songs, which I don’t think I ever heard them do before. The original recording, from HEAD, famously featured Ry Cooder and yes, Neil Young. Dolenz got a hearty round of applause when he mentioned the HEAD movie, and he wryly quipped, “Oh, you BOTH saw it? Can you tell me what it was about?” HEAD’s reputation has grown in leaps and bounds over the years; it now stands as a crazily entertaining, psychedelic relic of a time that will never come again. Nes returned to the stage for another song from that film, “Circle Sky.” He shushed the audience a couple of times before commencing, for comical effect, as that song is his original, proudly perhaps the most snarling rocker in the Monkees’ repertoire. Then they went right into “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” one of the greatest pop songs of the ‘60s, which could have been two degrees louder for my taste. But still, it’s just a great tune, hard to screw up. Micky announced a break but told everyone to stay in their seats for a special video. That turned out to be a truly poignant, solo in-studio performance by Peter Tork on the song “Till Then.” Tork was delightful and completely vibrant and charismatic in the video; it was honestly a tear-jerker, and the audience was visibly affected.
Set two began with a few “unplugged” acoustic tunes including “Papa Gene’s Blues” and Dolenz’s own “Randy Scouse Git,” which he prefaced with a funny tale of how he wrote the song based on something he observed in London. But when the Monkees were planning it for their next recording at the time, Dolenz was told to change the title because it meant something “dirty” in England. So the release over there listed it as “Alternate Title.” Chuckle! “Tapioca Tundra” was next, and despite this being my all-time favorite Monkees song and a theme to my own childhood, this was a slow, acoustic and completely different version of it. I would have loved to hear it as the rocker it is. That said, however, it was a delight to see the careful and attentive way Nesmith sang his own song, which clearly had some meaning for him. So did his First National Band classic “Joanne,” which was a sweet surprise. He remarked that though he didn’t write it for the Monkees, he was proud to be able to do it on this occasion. Nesmith is a bit of an eccentric. The way he phrases things in interviews, and most of what he said at this concert was curiously offbeat. At times he seemed to barely make it back to the mic in time, after stepping offstage to do whatever he was doing. And at one point he seemed surprised to find himself alone onstage, but that could have been an act. In musical terms, “Me and Magdalena,” another song from GOOD TIMES, may have been the highlight. This splendid Ben Gibbard-penned gem, found Dolenz and Nes in perfect harmony, literally, with the band’s keyboard player adding a sweet sparkle. It’s sort of amazing to hear a modern Monkees classic… an indication of more that the band could have accomplished with just a couple of different turns of fate’s wheel. But here it was, a NEW song in their canon that stands proud and tall. “Take a Giant Step” followed and was also better than expected. I had been wondering to myself if they would tackle “Goin’ Down,” Micky’s most incredible vocal performance from their entire oeuvre. And by golly, here it was. But they slowed it down, and not unsurprisingly, shortened it quite a bit. Micky used the moment to introduce the members of their backup band, which included seven other musicians! After a rousing “Sweet Young Thing,” it was a climactic run of classics to end the show: “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” (a stone classic, that), “Daydream Believer” (an audience sing-along favorite, although not everyone was doing so, quite obviously), “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round,” the late-era Nesmith classic “Listen To the Band,” and of course, “I’m a Believer,” which would start a riot if NOT performed at any Monkees-related show. Then it was all over, with me trying to figure out if my sadness or gratitude was greater.
Dolenz and Nesmith have another round of dates on this tour in June. And it is certainly possible they will play again together down the road. But they both have plenty of other things happening in their careers. And I would really be surprised if they didn’t openly admit that something has irrevocably changed. These are not young guys anymore, and Nes has had health problems recently. The march of time continues, and the fact is, we can’t really see “The Monkees” in concert anymore. Half the band is now in rock heaven. What we can and MIGHT see is an “approximation” of an experience that once thrilled, once brought us back to a more innocent and hopeful time. That’s largely what this particular show was. I enjoyed it and thought there were some delightful moments. But let’s just admit that it wasn’t truly the Monkees. It was a group of nine people serving up a sound that was one version of what you would hope to see at such a show. You can’t go home again. And the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.