The Monkees Arena Theatre August 1, 2013
Musically speaking, the Monkees are timeless. There's something about the sound of their big pop hits that is like an auditory time machine that takes you back to the first time you heard it. True, that time may have been sitting on the couch back when their show first hit the airwaves in 1966, being part of the generation that rediscovered them thanks to MTV and Nick at Nite, or having a rad older person clue you in on where that song in Shrek you like really came from, but the songs take you back.
So the group could have fully embraced the nostalgia angle and phoned Thursday's show. No one would have blamed them -- the median age of the group is 70, after all. If Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith had decided to hit the road and just sing the hits, crowds still would have been happy.
But they don't. They go out. They play their instruments. They put on a show.
It's not about just blind nostalgia. It's about enjoying the music in the present.
It's a shame that in the grand scheme of things the Monkees are better-known for their history than for their music. Songs like "Daydream Believer" and "Last Train to Clarksville" will always be around, but so will that bit from The Simpsons where someone taunts Marge because the Monkees didn't play their own songs.
It's a shame, because they have a really strong catalog, and the trio, along with their backing band, rip through it effortlessly. From the pop classics ("I'm a Believer") and the country-rock of "What Am I Doing Hangin' Round?" to the psychedelic "Porpoise Song" and rockers like "Circle Sky," they manage to pull it all off and make it look easy in the process. Nesmith can still make a guitar sound great, Dolenz has a goofy charm that shines through no matter what he's playing, and Tork plays a mean banjo.
They played a version of "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone" that was more rocking than anything I've seen live this year, most of those performances from bands whose members weren't even alive when the song was first released as a single.
True, the trio is older, but Dolenz and Tork remain performers at heart. They're funny without being kitschy, silly without being a joke. Nesmith comes off somewhat as serious musician first, performer second, but the man wrote "Mary, Mary," so he's allowed to be proud of his talents.
As for the lack of Davy Jones, you almost don't really notice his absence. He appears in video clips that are shown onscreen during the songs and when the band takes a break, but it's not 'til late in the show that they have to tackle his absence because you really can't play "Daydream Believer" and not talk about the voice of the song.
But rather than make it a memorial, they make it a celebration by taking a risk and letting someone from the crowd sing the song. "It belongs to you," is how they phrase it. It's one of those choices that could lead to disaster, but in Houston it worked out perfectly: the most adorable old man around got onstage, and even if he didn't have the pipes he had the heart to do the song justice, and it was amazing.
It's hard to say what happens next in the strange saga of The Monkees. Before the show it might have been hard to believe that they'd have the goods at their age, but whether it was watching Tork dance across stage, Dolenz pound the drums, or Nesmith lead the band through "Circle Sky" you start to think that maybe this doesn't have to be the last tour.
Maybe the band is more timeless than anyone thought.
Personal Bias: About a year and change ago I wrote a blog about why The Monkees should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is something I believe. In about ten years I'll be trolling the people behind the Houston Music Hall of Fame to get Nesmith in since he was born here. Fair warning.
The Crowd: Well, compared to your average concert crowd: older, more polite, and way more laid-back. Not as many people on their cell phones. Very happy to see Nesmith back in the band.
Overheard In the Crowd: Not a whole lot. Like I said, it was pretty laid-back other than the occasional too-loud drunk or random "I love you, [band member]."
Random Notebook Dump: My favorite underappreciated dance move is when middle-aged white ladies can't contain their excitement, so they stand up and move their arms in the air side to side. That's real enthusiasm, and it's awesome.
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Random Notebook Dump No. 2: For all the talk about rare songs they're playing on this tour, I was slightly bummed they didn't bust out "Zor and Zam," but I suspect I'm the only one who feels this way.