The Monkees at the Ryman, 7/24/13



From the time of their first appearance on the TV screens of America in 1966, The Monkees never had a chance — a least with a certain small segment of the American public. For the “establishment” arbitrators of taste, they stank of the emerging counterculture with their loud music, long hair and lack of sophistication and respect. It was like the juvenile humor of MAD Magazine combined with rock ’n’ roll — horrors! For their detractors in the counterculture, they reeked of the establishment. They were on TV every week, yukkin’ it up with Borsch Belt comedians and “old” Hollywood types, not to mention that their records were obviously recorded with the hope that they would become hits — the exact opposite of what a “pure” rock ’n’ roll singer yearns for (er, yeah, right).

Despite this crossfire from the cultural right and left, The Monkees became stars. There are lots of reasons why, but the big one was that they were entertainers who knew how to entertain, and their unique position of being “new” while still understanding and respecting the “old” was a winning formula. It’s a formula The Monkees still understand all these years later. Even with the death of Davy Jones last year, the remaining members know what it takes to entertain: giving the people what they want, but also being smart enough to intuit what they really do want. Armed with that understanding, they embarked on a triumphant tour last year, and returned for a second run that brought them to the Ryman last night.

A video montage of clips from the original TV show and later appearances through the years (including an '80s MTV logo — a reminder of how a second generation was introduced to the group) segued into an opening set pulled from the band’s first two albums. From the opening notes of their first hit, “Last Train to Clarksville,” it was evident that The Monkees were indeed a band. Though the surviving trio was backed by a seven-piece outfit (that included Michael Nesmith’s son Christian, Mickey Dolenz’s sister Coco and two Nashville residents, Wayne Avers and John Billings), “backed” was the operative word. The main Monkees were front and center, the leaders and focus of the night’s music. The set included more early hits, like “I’m a Believer” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” as well as slightly more obscure fan favorites like “Papa Gene’s Blues,” “Your Auntie Grizelda” and a crowd-raising rendition of “She.”

After their crowd-pleasing appetizer, The Monkees got down to real business in an astounding second set that focused on their 1967 landmark album Headquarters, playing seven of the album’s 14 tracks. Nesmith’s legacy as a songwriter was the primary focus for the set as the band roared through five of his compositions in a row, including “You Told Me,” “You Just May Be the One” and “Sunny Girlfriend,” one of the greatest “shoulda been” hits in the history of pop music. Nesmith also included the non-Headquarters tracks “Mary, Mary” and “The Girl I Knew Somewhere.”

The spotlight swung back to the other Monkees as Peter Tork delivered a moving rendition of the moody rocker “Early Morning Blues and Greens,” a song originally given voice by the departed Davy Jones. Dolenz then donned his trademark flowery, fringy poncho from the TV show to pound on the tympani as he led the band through his oddball classic “Randy Scouse Git," and Tork took center-stage for his classic anthem of flower-power optimism, “For Pete’s Sake,” which led into the rowdy rocker “No Time.” The rest of the show was filled with big hits and lessor known treasures from the group’s later LPs, including “Words,” “Daily Nightly,” “Tapioca Tundra” and Dolenz’s psychedelic scat “Goin' Down.”

But perhaps the greatest set piece was the six-song condensation of the group’s 1968 feature film Head. The set included all six of the original songs from the film’s soundtrack, including the rousing “Circle Sky” and “Do I Have to Do It All Over Again,” along with spot-on performances by Dolenz on the sublime “Porpoise Song” and “As We Go Along.” Footage from the songs’ appearances in the film provided the backdrop without distracting from the live performances. To close the set, the remaining Monkees gave it over to Davy Jones, showing the complete movie clip of his brilliant rendition of the Harry Nilsson-written “Daddy’s Song.” It was a tribute that made the case for the talent, charm and show-biz acumen of the missing Monkee far better than any spoken eulogy could have. The tribute continued by giving the performance of Jones’ signature hit “Daydream Believer” to the audience. Led by a woman pulled from the crowd, it was a worthy tribute and a poignant moment.

Bringing the show to a close with two classic Nesmith songs (“What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round” and “Listen to the Band”) and one of their great all-time garage rockers “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” The Monkees provided a powerful reminder of their success as a rare instance when varied and disparate threads of pop culture old and new came together to create something truly special. For a short period in the mid-'60s, The Monkees were four guys with the greatest job in the world. Needless to say, 45 years later, they’ve still got it pretty good and haven’t forgotten how to share that joy with their fans.

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