MICHAEL NESMITHUnion Chapel, London
October 30 2012
OK, let's get the obvious out of the way: anyone expecting a show chock full of Monkees classics tonight was going to be extremely disappointed. Having recently rejoined Tork and Dolenz on that quest in the wake of the death of Davy Jones, Nesmith will be playing that material VERY regularly for the next few years, and as a result feels little need to do so here: plus, let's be honest, despite recent statements that he "never really left" and "always kept it in his heart", he hasn't felt that need since around 1970, his solo career always remaining a separate entity to those who actually care to listen. For this reason, I was not surprised in the slightest that opener 'Papa Gene's Blues' was one of only two numbers tonight associated with that band. In fact I was more surprised that stone gems from the First National Band's output, such as 'Harmony Constant' and 'I Fall To Pieces' were left out. Still, you can't have everything.
What we do have, on the other hand, is the real Mike Nesmith: not only singer, songwriter and guitarist, but visionary, poet, painter and pioneer. Unfortunately, also a pioneer, it would seem, whose sense of progression seems to have got stuck somewhere between Bruce Hornsby and Massive Attack (both of whom I admire, but, you know, like, out of context, anybody?) and thinks that early 90s downtempo beats and soft-rock synths are the best accompaniment for songs of such magnitude. Understandably, this is his first UK tour since the 70s, so coming to the UK backed only by bassist Joe Chemay and keyboardist Charlie Judge (aka 'the one who looks like Giles out of Buffy and the one who looks like Bob from Twin Peaks), both of whom trigger a variety of sounds and textures from pads and computers, probably makes more financial sense than hiring a whole band.. On the other hand, maybe his unwillingness to risk money on dangerous ventures explains just how Mr Tippex himself has remained a billionaire after all these years even in a digital age when his family's invention is nigh-on obsolete.
Nevertheless, all practicalities aside, there are several times, particularly during more recent 80s and 90s-penned material, when such accompaniment reduces Nesmith's unquestionably fine songcraft to the level of pub cabaret. This also mars an otherwise so-sublime-it's-beyond-description version of 'Different Drum', which, believe me, is exactly what the song required. Yet elsewhere, on 'Rio' and 'Cruisin', the two hit singles which helped pave the way for MTV, it works- in the case of the former, maybe because its countrypolitan lounge strains lend itself naturally to such rhythms, and in the latter, because its steel-cold proto-New Wave sci-fi leanings (predating both Neil Young's Trans and Wall Of Voodoo's debut by almost five years), once anarchically futuristic and now quaintly retro, naturally lean toward the mechanical. Meanwhile, outside both these worlds somewhere dwells 'Cold Ennui', which is simply such a good song it cuts through anything.
What saves the show from any potential propensity towards saccharine, and elevates it instead into the pantheon of almost the avant-garde, is not only the spoken-word introductions (which, as he explains, set the songs up as small movies within not only the listener's heads but the protagonists'), but Nesmith's own voice: rich, deep, sonorous, steeped in prairies, lonesome forests and cacti (not to mention a little of the magical substance that may be imbibed from said plant) and full of time-worn ragged edges, particularly on high notes, that accentuate both his organic, contemplative humanity and preoccupation with the bizarre. These qualities are particularly evident on 'Joanne' and my personal favourite 'Silver Moon', and accentuated during 'Lamp Post', the brooding-minor key finale from his underrated concept masterpiece The Prison. While it would be fair to say that several sectors of the audience are by now nonplussed to the point of perplexity, those of us who yearned for many years to see these songs performed live have quite a different take on things. I guess even within niche markets, there are further niches to discover...
"Thanks For The Ride", quoth the sprightly, healthy (well, so would you be if you had that amount of money) septagenarian, looking for all the world like a man who's had the time of his life and wants to do it all over again soon. Not only is it the title of the final song, but it also seems to encompass perfectly the philosophy of a man who, while still principally remembered as a bubblegum popsike idol, is somehow content to allow that misconception to allow him to move freely in the background, undertaking his rigidly unconventional, individualistic path through film-making, novel writing and of course, being one of the few truly progressive voices in country music, which he remains. And if he didn't quite succeed in demonstrating those aims this time round (although personally, I thought the idea of replicating the late Red Rose's best solos on lapsteel via the ingenious use of a laptop was something of a masterstroke) then I have a funny feeling he'll be around again sometime soon, hopefully with a drummer, and then he'll convince all of us. In other words, don't go expecting him to turn up at your local Phoenix Nights-style social club just yet. Like all the best riders on the range, this lone cowboy has a few hundred more miles left in him yet.
Darius Drewe Shimon