Dictionary.com defines monkeyshines as a frivolous or mischievous prank. Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, has its share of mischief and frivolity. One view of an episode of the Monkees television show from the 1960’s would make the watcher think that the Monkees were all about mischief and frivolity. So what was one to expect when the Monkees made a stop at the Mesa Arts Center on Friday night, August 9, 2013 for what was billed as “A Midsummer’s Night with the Monkees,” tour?
The answer was some frivolity, little mischief, and a whole lot of “why didn’t people take the Monkees seriously”?
Perhaps a lot had to do with how the Monkees were created and marketed. They were a made for television band, referred to by detractors as the Prefab Four. Unlike the band that inspired their creation, the Monkees never had to play small night clubs in Liverpool or Hamburg to earn their credibility before making it big. The Monkees were big from the beginning.
As was evident by the videos that were played on the screen at the back of the stage even before the show began, the television version of the Monkees was a group of young men who were comical, slapstick and carefree. Their music was not the main focus but existed only as a reason to show their struggles as an aspiring band trying to get a break. Who cared if they could actually play their own instruments?
The members of the Monkees did. Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork were musicians who had been out there paying their dues in small clubs before being launched to stardom. Davy Jones was a Tony Award nominated singer who could also play drums. Child actor, Micky Dolenz could play guitar. These were not just actors that wanted to be musicians. They were musicians that could also act. Besides, forty seven years later, you don’t just act your way through an almost two hour concert.
After the video screen showed the well-known introduction to “The Monkees” television show (“hey, hey, we’re the Monkees),” the trio of Nesmith, Tork and Dolenz took the stage (Jones having passed away a year earlier). As the band, with Dolenz on steady lead vocals, burst into “Last Train to Clarksville,” the high pitched screams of the thousands of girls that used to dominate a Monkees’ concert were replaced by the roar of a more mixed audience. As the crowd stood and clapped along, their eyes alternated between the three legends on stage and the video screen behind the band broadcasting the video of the same song that was shot forty seven years earlier.
The group quickly dispelled the thinking that the late Davy Jones was the only singer of the band as Nesmith took the vocal reins for his self-penned tune, “Papa Gene’s Blues,” followed by Tork’s vocals and nifty footwork for “Your Auntie Grizelda.” Because Jones or Dolenz was usually the lead vocalist on the majority of the Monkees’ hits, the evening’s performance was a revelation as to how many lead vocals Nesmith and Tork contributed to the Monkees’ song catalog.
The first section of the show drew from the Monkees’ first two albums, “The Monkees” and “More of the Monkees.” What was becoming evident from songs such as the rocking, heartbreaker, “She,” or the country sounding “Sweet Young Thing,” was that the music didn’t sound like a nostalgic throw back to the music of the 1960’s. If you didn’t know when the Monkees were at their peak, you would have been hard pressed to name the decade from which those songs came. As Dolenz pointed out to any kids in the audience, the Monkees sang “I’m a Believer,” long before Shrek did. The timeless song brought everyone to their feet to clap and sing along.
After a brief intermission for the band but not the audience, who was treated to more video highlights from the Monkees’ early years, the ensemble returned for the “Headquarters,” section of the show. “Headquarters” was the Monkees’ third album and groundbreaking for them in that it was the first for the Monkees where the members wrote the majority of the songs and also were allowed to play on the album’s tracks. As proof, for the first time of the night, Dolenz took a seat behind his drum set.
For a change, songs written by Boyce and Hart or Neil Diamond didn’t comprise the album’s better known songs. Tork’s “For Pete’s Sake,” elicited audience recognition as the closing song to episodes from the second season of “The Monkees.” Nesmith’s “Mary, Mary,” got a few in the crowd up and dancing. The manic Dolenz number “Randy Scouse Git,” (“Why don’t you cut your hair? Why don’t you live up there?”) came complete with Dolenz donning his famed “poncho tablecloth” and pounding away on the timpani drum brought out to centerstage.
After another video break, this time the trailer for the Monkees’ 1968 mind trip movie “Head,” the trio embarked on some songs from the movie’s soundtrack. Dolenz took the stage without his band mates to deliver the mystic “Porpoise Song.” Tork then was spotlighted alone on centerstage as he sang his psychedelic “Dig It.” Nesmith followed the trend with “Circle Sky.” Unlike most songs from “Head” that seemed a bit dated by embracing the late 1960’s psychedelic sound, Nesmith’s country rock tune stood out.
The final video tribute of the night was seeing the dancing Davy Jones perform in a clip of “Daddy’s Song.” There were more than a few wet eyes that remembered the talent that Jones brought to the group. Tork’s, Dolenz’ and Nesmith’s tribute to Jones was to retire their singing of the song “Daydream Believer” and make it belong to the fans. With one lucky audience member selected to go onstage to sing the main verses and the audience delivering a resounding chorus (in case you’re wondering, it’s “cheer up sleepy Jean”), the moment was memorable.
The regular set ended with another country rock number, Nesmith’s “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round.” With Tork on banjo and Nesmith’s country flavor, the song sounded more like it belonged on a Poco album than one from the Monkees.
For the encore, Nesmith urged the crowd to “Listen to the Band.” That was easy enough to do as the backup musicians for Nesmith, Tork and Dolenz brought a fullness to the Monkees sound all night long. Coco Dolenz (Micky’s sister) on vocals, Christian Nesmith (Mike’s son) on guitar, Dave Alexander on keyboards, guitar and vocals, Wayne Avers on guitar, John Billings on bass, Rich Dart on drums and Aviva Maloney on saxophone, keyboards and vocals were all integral to keeping the Monkees’ songs fresh and updated.
After the band finished the night with “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” those in attendance could take away several lessons from the evening. One, Tork, Nesmith and Dolenz can play their own instruments. Tork was proficient on lead, rhythm and bass guitar as well as banjo and keyboards. Nesmith not only showed his guitar work but even contributed on keyboards as well. Dolenz can play the drums and guitar.
Two, the remaining members of the Monkees can still sing. Dolenz could still go high and clearly is the dominating vocalist of the group although Nesmith and Tork can hold their own. Jones’ voice is missed but not forgotten.
Three, the Monkees are more than just a boy band with teen magazine good looks whose fame relied solely on bubblegum hits written by others. Their compositions are only dated by how short the songs are by today’s standards. In concert, song after song seemed up to date and not like a 1960’s retro act.
Unlike many concerts where people are coming and going all the time, for the two hours the Monkees were on stage, either singing or via nostalgic videos that were strategically used to complement what was happening on stage, few people got up to leave. You must be doing something right to command that type of attention.
Those that grew up watching the Monkees on television will remember a wacky band that had some catchy songs. But you get much more than that with the Monkees in concert. Mischief and frivolity can make you last two years on television. True musical talent lets you last another 47 years.
Set List: Last Train to Clarksville | Papa Gene’s Blues | Your Auntie Grizelda | The Kind of Girl I Could Love | She | Sweet Young Thing | I’m A Believer | (I’m Not Your ) Steppin’ Stone | You Told Me | Sunny Girlfriend | You Just May Be the One | Mary, Mary | The Girl I Knew Somewhere | Early Morning Blues and Greens | Randy Scouse Git | For Pete’s Sake | No Time | The Door Into Summer | Words | Tapioca Tundra | Goin’ Down | Porpoise Song | Can You Dig It? | Circle Sky | As We Go Along | Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again | Daddy’s Song (Davy Jones video) | Daydream Believer | What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round | Encore: Listen To The Band | Pleasant Valley Sunday