The phenomenon of the Monkees is unique in music. When you look them up on Wikipedia, The Monkees “the band” comes up (“This article is about the musical group. For the TV see The Monkees (tv series).”) You see we’re already in a funny place. Are the Monkees a show or a band? Yes. And depending how you imbibed them, and when, depends on your perspective about them. There is a spectrum of feelings about the Monkees; everything from, “they’re a bunch of hack actors” to “they are the soundtrack of my childhood.” Did we love the music because it was sold by their irreverent, fresh-faced cuteness? Maybe. But when you delve deeper, you realize you may have loved the music because it was good. It was written, produced, and played by industry heavies; Glen Campbell consistently on guitar, Carole King, David Gates (later of Bread), and Neil Diamond contributing songs. Don Kirshner (of the Archies and Kansas) producing. And with all those gray areas regarding proper citation, who knows who else may have been involved. You may have loved them because they came together to create something super special; they were musicians and song-writers and actors and what they gave us still lasts and still makes us ask why we love them and how real it was. Well, I saw them live, real, and up close at the Arlington on Friday night. And they were awesome.
A live show has an audience, so the crowd is another player in the game. The “vibe” of the room is one of the aspects of the evening, to be sure. Upon entering the theater, there was a palpable excitement in the air; so many people have waited a long time to see them. The Monkees have occasionally toured, and as recently as last year; but last year the lineup was very different. Davy Jones was still alive, and Mike Nesmith was still on hiatus (as he tends to be. Mike has been the least consistent in terms of touring. As heir to the Liquid Paper fortune, I don’t imagine he has to tour if he doesn’t feel like it). There is the heaviness of the fact that Davy is gone. Davy was a showman. He may have seemed like a plucky, cheesy, ladies-man, but he had been nominated for a Tony before he even started on the Monkees. We all secretly know that the Monkees are not the Monkees unless it is all four of them, and yet it has been rare to see all four of them live in concert. Supposedly this tour was started with the idea of doing a memorial for Davy, and a memorial show turned into a small tour. Even though it’s not the same without Davy, the Monkees are a rare occurrence, and so the room was buzzing. People were excited.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the show, honestly. A bit stung that Mike couldn’t have managed to tour with the group before Davy’s untimely death, acknowledgement that they weren’t always the most stellar musicians; you never know how much “soul” is in a tour such as this. The evening opened with a video and a medley played by the back up band, which was a bit strange for rock show but quite fitting for a rock “show.” The video was fun, showing clips from the tv series, magazine covers, photo shoots, etc, and continued in the background for the duration of the concert. This was perfect, because their irresistible youthful exuberance is one of the things that makes us love the music. It is intertwined.
When the Monkees took the stage, they wasted no time launching into their chronological set. They opened with “Last Train to Clarksville,” their first hit, from 1966, to rousing cheers from the almost-full theater. They were a bit rickety, and they had a pretty good variety of studio musicians backing them, but the Monkees were front and center, playing the songs. There was smiling acknowledgment that it wasn’t effortless. It was good to see them, to see them joke around, interact, to be real and funny. They played 18 songs from the 1966-1968 period, a time that is prolific musically for the Monkees, who were whipped to crank out as much music as they could to support the popular tv show. The songs are iconic, all well known favorites.
The first half showcased a terrific selection of Nesmith songs, the most prolific songwriter in the group, who has a distinctive country-folk style. He wrote so many great tunes and they played a diverse selection; “Papa Genes Blues”, “You Told Me”, “Sunny Girlfriend”, “Mary Mary”, “The Girl That I knew Somewhere.” His signature Gretsch was present, playing it’s familiar sound. Mickey stood front and center and his energy was intoxicating, as expected; same ol’ Mickey. His distinctive voice wasn’t what it used to be, but it didn’t stop him from belting out hit after hit and having fun with the audience, “I’m a Believer”, “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone”, “She.” He sang, danced, crooned, and occasionally played the drums, and well considering he basically learned on the show.
Peter (often lauded as the most musical of the four; he appeared on stage with Pete Seeger pre-Monkees) worked through a myriad of instruments, including a banjo. I’m sure that when the novelty song “Auntie Grizelda,” was written, they didn’t think it was going to last 50 years and span the generations and that you would have theaters filled with folks who knew every word. Yet Peter delivered Auntie Grizelda with aplomb, and, fully intact (weird noises and all.) They played four songs from their movie Head, a “psychedelic adventure comedy” from 1968. They are lesser-known songs, and ambitious to play. There wasn’t the sing-along feel to the “Head” set of the evening; instead the video reminded you of how rapidly things were changing back in 1968 and how the Monkees music was changing right with it. It was watching the movie with live accompaniment. The highlight of the evening was a hilarious rendition of Nesmith’s “Daily Nightly,” in which Nesmith provided Moog accompaniment via verbal beeps and boops to a cracking-up Dolenz.
Davy’s role in the show was handled nicely. He frolicked on the video in the background just as much as the other three, like things had never changed; his cute grin and cheesy vaudevillian dancing the same as ever. He was given two songs of his own played on the big screen; “I Wanna Be Free,” accompanied by a contemplative clip of Davy on the beach, and “Daddy’s Song” from “Head,” a clever and odd dance number that pretty much only Davy Jones could pull off. At the end of the show there was an audience sing-along to ‘Daydream Believer,” a lovely way to present Davy’s most famous song. And who doesn’t like to belt out Daydream Believer? (C’mon, I’ll bet you know it.)
They closed with Nesmith’s “Listen to the Band,” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday;” a hit to be sure, but I would have appreciated something with a little more oomph. It was such an enjoyable ride through their hits, through our memories, our days sitting in front of the tube or the record player being absolutely wholly entertained by these plucky young men who played one great tune after another, and who always made life look easy, and fun. Well it’s still fun to watch them. And it’s still fun listening. Are they a band or a show? Yes