I became a Monkees fan at age 11 after binge-watching their hit TV show on Nick-at-Nite’s Block Party Summer. Its run lasted all of two weeks, but after that I was hooked for life. Unfortunately, in the days before YouTube, file-sharing and slick DVD box sets, there was no way to find the episodes, other than a pricey VHS collection that only a few lucky fan friends of mine had. Since Best Buy stocked all the CDs, I immersed myself in the Monkees’ music instead, and got to know them as a band first, the television show a distant memory; a gateway drug, if you will.
At the height of my Monkees obsession, my always-tolerant mother took me to see Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones (or “the Threekees,” as they were lovingly called) on their 2001 tour. In Columbus, we had great seats. I, unfortunately, also had a wicked flu and almost passed out at the stage door waiting for their exit. A few weeks later at a rib burn-off in a Cleveland parking lot, a vengeful storm ripped through, busting out the back of the stage and almost taking Davy with it. Yes, these are my earliest live-Monkees memories.
If I were to tell Little Allison not to worry, that she’d have ample opportunities to see her favorite “band” in action a decade or so later, she might stress a little less. If I told her she’d also get to see/meet her favorite Monkee (Mike Nesmith), she wouldn’t believe me.
Since rejoining Dolenz and Tork post-Davy Jones’ tragic death, Nesmith has revolutionized the Monkees’ live performance, elevating it from something like a live interpretation of the show to a meticulous (yet still fun and accessible) production. Lots of debate has sparked over just WHY Nesmith couldn’t bear to tour with the Threekees; in fact, he’d only joined them a few times onstage since formally departing the Monkees in 1970. Though the reasons why he shunned his musical past are pretty irrelevant now, my personal speculation might explain why the shift in the show.
Davy’s presence brought out a certain razzle-dazzle. He was an entertainer, plain and simple. I don’t think he ever tried to hide his Broadway background, or flamboyant showmanship. It was one of the elements that made him not only beloved, but a memorable character in music history. Even his voice had the timbre of a musical puppeteer.
He was everything Michael Nesmith is not. Nez is a writer, creator, producer, mastermind and visionary. From the get-go he was a focused player, concerned about the quality of the Monkees’ records, and insisted they play on their albums — so much so that he famously drove his fist through a wall as a threat to music supervisor Don Kirshner. He wanted substance, authenticity and responsibility.
Davy was an actor; Nez was a musician. Both enigmatic, both powerful, and both staunchly committed to their individual goals.
Is it any mystery why those two might have a difficult time sharing the stage? Maybe not in 1967 when they were paid beaucoup bucks to play the Monkees game. But when time passes and fame fades, I’d imagine the idea of sacrificing your true musical self is kind of soul-crushing. No one’s at fault for the perceived rift; I don’t think Nez hated Davy or vice-versa. Michael Nesmith just knew that the Davy Jones-incarnation of the Threekees was not his bag. And that’s okay.
But it reveals a lot about why he came back. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t believe that Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork are mere marionettes in the operation, but I do think they smartly learned long ago when to let big personalities hash it out themselves. I think they, like a lot of the fans, and like Nez and Davy, can see the virtue in both types of performances. Where before it was centered on the “entertainment” factor, now it is heavily on the musicianship and presentation. It’s a different experience.
I saw the Monkees last Saturday in Newark, their second show of this go-round. I’d heard pre-tour rumblings of all sorts, and though I’ve seen every Nez-inclusive tour of the past few years, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I went into the beautiful New Jersey Performing Arts Center with an open mind and open ears, free of any set list spoilers and ready to embrace whatever they threw at me.
And I walked away knowing that I had just seen The Best Monkees Concert Ever(tm).
What made it so great? And why is this tour different from every other outing since Nez returned in 2012? It’s hard to put into words, as are most things that are aesthetically unbelievable, but allow me to break it down for you, good reader. (Fair warning — here be spoilers!)
5) It’s a family affair.
Days before the tour began, Nesmith made a Facebook post listing the members of his family who would join him on the road and their individual positions. His son Christian, a prolific musician in his own right, is guitarist and vocal captain, ripping into songs like Peter Tork’s “Can You Dig It.” Christian’s musical partner and girlfriend, singer/songwriter Circe Link, a gorgeous throwback to lithe ’60s chicks, joins in on vocals. Beside her is Micky’s sister, Coco, an always-welcome presence, whose voice blends effortlessly with her brother’s in tone and range.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Nez’s son Jonathan and his significant other, Susan, crafted the stunning visual elements throughout the show. Particularly impressive is the barrage of pop culture imagery during “Randy Scouse Git,” and the impeccably-timed ViewMaster reel of The Monkees‘ leading ladies set to “Sweet Young Thing.” Nesmith’s daughter, Jessica, has been a familiar face for the past few years, both at Monkees concerts and her dad’s solo “Movies of the Mind” performances. This time, she’s stage-managing and “calling” the show, as Nez puts it.
“The kids (not exactly kids anymore) that are with me all have jobs and are all very good at what they do,” he said on Facebook, “I leave their management to Micky and Peter and the kids know they have to produce high quality work.”
4) They leave out the shtick.
How many times have you gone to an “oldies” (I hate that term as much as the folks it’s referring to) concert only to find out it’s about 35% music and 65% jokes about being old, retirement, young people, nursing homes, broken hips, blah blah blah. Guess what, dudes, no one’s interested in hearing your self-deprecating one-liners! To the individuals in the audience, you are/were/will always be the demi-gods on record covers, so act that way. For that special two-hour block, the 65-year-old man in the third row feels like he’s 17 again, and the 22-year-old girl in the balcony believes it’s 1967. Not to mention that this is your opportunity to reclaim the youth you’re always complaining slipped away when you weren’t looking. Don’t break that suspension of belief for anyone.
Oh, right, Monkees. They don’t do that, thank God. Moving on!
3) The set list is right on-point.
The hits are there. They’re there just as you’ve heard them a bazillion times on the radio. If “I’m a Believer” was even tweaked slightly, I’m sure the whole world would implode (lookin’ at you, Smash Mouth). But there’s a reason why that megahit in particular is stacked so early in the set — the best is yet to come. They move through their catalog chronologically, pulling out fan-favorites like “She,” “Tapioca Tundra,” and “The Door Into Summer,” mixing singles with non-singles and ensuring that everyone gets what they paid for.
On the first New Threekees tour in 2012, the Monkees debuted a new, mellower version of “Sweet Young Thing” that continues to be a highlight. The set list errs on the Nez-heavy side anyway (at last count, he sings lead on a dozen songs), as it kind of should after so many years of makeshift Nesmith representation, like Peter Tork’s rendition of “Papa Gene’s Blues.” Nez also reclaims “The Girl I Knew Somewhere,” a song he wrote and Dolenz sang. While the set’s “deep tracks” are still somewhat in the shallow end, the artistry and finesse with which they are delivered is what makes them great.
2) They play their own instruments.
Will this finally put the nearly 50-year-old bitchmoan from critics and snobby fans to bed? Who knows. I won’t even go into the audacity of the issue in the first place. Instead, let’s focus on the incredible musicianship displayed by the entire on-stage lineup, but particularly Nesmith, Dolenz and Tork.
A lot of bands of a certain age rely on ringers to fill in the sound from their records, or enhance their vocal and musical performance. While the Monkees have a stellar lineup behind them (longtime Dolenz band members guitarist Wayne Avers, keyboardist David Alexander, bassist John Billings and drummer Rich Dart, plus Christian Nesmith), the players are there more to support the core, rather than do their jobs for them. I will say, however, that Aviva Maloney, Davy Jones’ right-hand-woman who’d been a staple on the last few tours, was definitely missed, as much for her musical versatility as her gregarious presence and flashbulb smile.
When the Monkees begin a set dedicated to their 1967 album, Headquarters, the record on which the four group members essentially hijacked the music from the “powers that be,” everything else sort of falls away as the now-trio carries the show. Sure, there are a few shaky moments, but that’s the beauty of live music, and genuineness of performance. There’s just something golden about seeing the original guys play the original songs. On “Mary, Mary,” in particular, most of the backing band is relegated to percussion to occupy idle hands. I counted four sets of maracas during the song. Might be overkill, but it’s also a testament to how well the core flies solo.
Tork, in particular, is quite impressive throughout the concert. Juggling banjo, guitar, and keyboard duties, he’s also featured vocally on a few songs, including his signature wacky “Auntie Grizelda.” Honestly, while it might have been his one moment of glory in past tours, it’s now highly unnecessary, especially since he commandeers vocals on songs like “Can You Dig It” and “For Pete’s Sake.” During “The Davy Jones Show,” his schtick and mouth noises would be applauded and welcomed, and not that they’re not fun and cute, but Peter Tork is beyond that now, and always was. This tour is the one where folks will walk away with a new-found admiration for his mad musicianship, which, by the way, was there all along, just radically under-appreciated.
1) Davy is still with us — and them.
Nez-era Threekees tours are understandably light on Davy. No one could fill those shoes. His big moment comes when “Daddy’s Song,” his musical number from the Monkees’ 1968 movie Head, plays onscreen. Live, it was always Davy at his Davy-est (Daviest?). He’d appear in a white leisure-type suit and perform his classic choreography and a little soft-shoe. It was only appropriate that, if a Davy bit were included, it would be that one.
Though his material is largely cut, there’s obviously one song that can’t ever be ignored: “Daydream Believer.” Past tours featured a fan pulled from the audience to lead a sing-a-long, representing that the song “belongs to the fans now.” This tour, the song’s presentation is vastly different. Micky Dolenz emotionally delivers the first verse of the song, which is enough to make any good-hearted concertgoer choke up.
But then, something miraculous happens. Nesmith takes the second verse.
Unexpected, heart-wrenching and spirit-lifting. I’m not one to cry at concerts, especially with bands I’ve seen many times, but I couldn’t help it losing it a little. The sheer surprise of hearing his voice deliver a piece of Davy that is near-holy relic status is what officially stamped this performance as The Best Monkees Concert Ever(tm).
Nez singing a verse of “Daydream Believer” has surely happened before; in fact, a version of him on lead vocals exists. But on this tour, in this context, it is a cathartic experience. Where the 2012 tour was dubbed the unofficial “Davy Jones Memorial Tour,” this one is more about healing, acceptance, and the future. For me, and many fans, I’m sure, it proved a certain peace within the fold.
The poignancy of the gesture is simple, but meaningful. Recognition from one polarized heavyweight to another, with a simple message: “You will never be forgotten and you will always be one of us.”
And that’s why this tour is so great — for that one, shining moment at the very end of the concert, the Monkees are whole again.
Friday, May 30: Fox Theater, Detroit, Michigan
Saturday, May 31: Star Plaza Theater, Merrillville, Indiana
Sunday, June 1: Riverside Theater, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Monday, June 2: Weesner Amphitheater, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Wednesday, June 4: Uptown Theater, Kansas City, Missouri
Thursday, June 5: Fox Theater, St. Louis, Missouri
Friday, June 6: PNC Pavillion at Riverbend Music Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
Saturday, June 7: Hard Rock Live, Northfield (Cleveland), Ohio
(Featured photo Ⓒ Larry Marano/Getty Images; Other photos Ⓒ Michael Ochs Archives)