Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Michael Nesmith, Manchester Royal Northern College Of Music

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on October 29, 2012

This will necessarily be brief, because I only had four hours of sleep last night and I was incoherent even before seeing one of my musical idols. But I promised people a report on the gig, so here it is.

Much like the Beach Boys gigs in Italy, today was a day of coincidences. We’ve got a few people doing a six-week residency at my work, and just as I was leaving, one of them pointed to my Monkees T-shirt and said to me “My girlfriend [in the USian usage, for friend-who-is-female] got married by one of them. Mike… Nesmith, is it?” — Nesmith had officiated at her friend’s wedding. Not only that, but my colleague’s husband turns out to be one of The Golden Dawn, a classic 60s garage-psych band I like. So that was nice.

And then at the gig, after buying myself a T-shirt and a cut-priced box set of Nesmith’s last four albums (with free DVD), I took my seat — I had a great seat, third row centre. Not quite as close as Iain Lee’s description of being so close to Nez at Glasgow that he could see the shape of his penis, but then frankly that’s a good thing. Some things are better left to the imagination — or even better left unimagined.

I found myself sat next to the same person I’d been sat next to at the Monkees gig last year. I’m afraid I talked a bit too much at her, because when I’m this tired I have no filters, but on the upside she turned out to be a fan of classic Doctor Who and Canterbury scene prog, and generally to be a very interesting person. Who I’m sure I bored to death, but I shut up once Nesmith came on.

Nesmith’s show is absolutely stunning. His voice is almost unchanged since the 70s, and those rough edges it does have just give it a worn, comforting quality that, if anything, improves it. And he’s such a great natural singer that he manages to work around the limitations his age imposes in much the same way that someone like Tony Bennett does. He’s got a gorgeous, rich baritone, and I hadn’t realised just how *bloody good* he is until hearing him live.

He was backed by Joe Chemay, who he’s played with since 1979 (and who also played with the Beach Boys in the late 70s), on bass and backing vocals, and by Charlie Judge on keyboards and computers.

Because Nesmith has *radically* rearranged some of these songs, to incorporate electronic soundscapes, beats and samples. This has been the most controversial decision of this tour, but it’s both absolutely right and absolutely wrong. On songs like Silver Moon and Rio, it doesn’t work very well, and it ends up sounding a bit 80s cheese, like someone backing themselves with a Casio keyboard. But on the other hand, on Grand Ennui the result was something like Tom Waits by way of the Radiophonic Workshop, while Laugh Kills Lonesome became space age lounge music, something like Cornelius remixing Esquivel.

Possibly the most interesting reworking was Different Drum, which he performed in waltz-time, to a backing of accordion sounds, and which ended up sounding remarkably like Leonard Cohen.

I’d rather see a performer experiment and fail than not experiment at all, and the experiments worked more often than not. But for those who wanted him to do everything exactly as he used to, many of the most famous songs — Some Of Shelly’s Blues, Propinquity, Papa Gene’s Blues, Tapioca Tundra, Joanne — were done pretty much straight, and worked as well as ever. And the computers were also used on the last song to allow them to fly in Red Rhodes’ original pedal steel solo for Thanx For The Ride, which was a beautiful moment.

The songs worked better than ever, in fact — one thing that people have not properly mentioned in reviews is the way Nez has set the songs up. In order to make them fresh for himself and the audience, he tells a little… story isn’t *quite* the right word, maybe scenario?… before each one, describing a context in which the songs could happen. These are very visual descriptions, told in Nez’s wonderful Jimmy Stewart voice, and they do conjure up very vivid images in the head while listening to the songs. It’s easy to see why he took to making videos with such enthusiasm — the descriptions sound like storyboards for videos.

The interesting thing about these is that the contextualising does help give the songs new meanings. Some Of Shelly’s Blues and Different Drum, for example, are both songs I like a lot but which have a macho arrogance and callousness to them that makes it hard for me to love them. The settings Nez describes manage to remove that sting and make them both seem much more compassionate, empathetic songs, and all the better for it.

The best of these, though, was actually one he read from a book — Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling’s conversation about fate, writing and how art becomes the property of the reader, as recounted in Craig Brown’s Hello Goodbye Hello — which manages actually to make Tapioca Tundra’s lyrics make some kind of sense.

To give some idea of how great Nez is as a live performer, when I saw the other three Monkees last year, even when they were posing for photos outside before the show, I was hit with a rush of childhood nostalgia. “That’s Micky! Off of the Monkees! Off of the telly! It’s MICKY!!!” — they were great, but they could have been godawful and I’d have loved them because I reverted to being eight years old.

On the other hand, when Nesmith mentioned the Monkees, which he did two or three times, I actually thought for half a second “Why’s he talking about the Monkees? Oh yeah! Michael Nesmith is Mike out of the Monkees, isn’t he?” — I was so lost in the music and the show that the fact that the little old man who was playing, talking and singing had a connection to a TV show I loved as a kid (and still love as an adult, of course) was about as important as what brand of shoes he was wearing. I was watching someone with a remarkable voice (and, other than Brian Wilson’s, the most infectious smile of anyone I’ve ever seen) performing songs that are equal parts Cole Porter and Hank Williams, that make up one of the most remarkable catalogues in modern popular music, and that’s pretty much all I was thinking about.

This has been a wonderful year for gigs. I’ve seen Neil Innes play to an audience of about fifty people, and the Beach Boys fill stadia, I’ve seen Ray Davies play Autumn Almanac with just an acoustic guitar, and Van Dyke Parks play Heroes & Villains with the Britten Sinfonia. In a year of wonderful performances by great eccentric 1960s songwriters, it’s impossible to choose a best, but Nesmith’s show was at least comparable to all of those.

He hasn’t toured the UK solo since before I was born, and has barely ever gigged, so it’s not likely you’ll get to see him if you’re reading this and haven’t (although he’s touring the US with the Monkees in a couple of weeks, doing a very different, but undoubtedly excellent, kind of show). But in the unlikely event you do get a chance, *GO*.

Setlist was Papa Gene’s Blues – Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care) – Tomorrow And Me – Grand Ennui – Different Drum – Joanne – Silver Moon – Some Of Shelly’s Blues – Tapioca Tundra – Rio – Casablanca Moonlight – Crusin – Life,The Unsuspecting Captive – Marie’s Theme – Prison Closing Theme – Laugh Kills Lonesome – Thanx For The Ride

21 Responses

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  1. Carol Ward said, on October 30, 2012 at 12:38 am

    Thanks for the review and sharing your thoughts on the show. I’ll be seeing the US tour in November. It’s really Nesmith I want to see. Although (since I am a first generation Monkee fan) I’m thrilled to see all three remaining members I feel that seeing Nesmith makes it like a trip to Mecca, while seeing them a year or two ago would have seemed like a trip to Disney. I feel so lucky to see the upcoming show – but hope that he’ll do a North American solo tour.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on October 30, 2012 at 8:09 am

      There’s been some talk in interviews of him doing a US tour with the surviving members of the First National Band early next year. How likely that is, I don’t know — Nez is hardly the most consistent person — but it’s something he’s definitely said he’s planning on doing.

      As for the Monkees, I’m very jealous. Micky, Davy and Peter last year were phenomenal — it was a far better, more artistic show than you might imagine — but I too am primarily a Nesmith fan, and would love to see hime with Micky and Peter.

  2. Linda said, on October 30, 2012 at 1:11 am

    Thank you for this! I read some bad reviews of the QEH performance and I really enjoyed myself. I expect him to experiment. It is what he does. Some was a bit weird but to be honest, it was his voice that I concentrated on. I heard the arrangement but for the most part I just focused on how wonderful he sounded.

  3. Mike Taylor said, on October 30, 2012 at 7:59 am

    DId you also see some bloke called McCartney this year?

    • Andrew Hickey said, on October 30, 2012 at 8:04 am

      That was late last year, while all the other people I mentioned were in the last six months or so. It was, of course, a truly exceptional show, but I don’t think of it as part of the recent run of great gigs.

      • Mike Taylor said, on October 30, 2012 at 8:13 am

        OK — so not part of this calendar year, but within the last twelve months. Nice.

        BTW., I think I must have missed whatever you wrote about the Ray Davies acoustic gig. Do you have a link? (I played/sang Waterloo Sunset at the folk club last Sunday. Went down very well. Even the most po-faced folkies know and love it.)

        Oh, and this: “I’d rather see a performer experiment and fail than not experiment at all”. I absolutely agree. Six years on I’m still not sure whether Paul Simon’s Surprise album works, but I’m glad he made it.

        • Andrew Hickey said, on October 30, 2012 at 8:36 am

          I don’t think I did review it actually — it was only a few weeks ago, and I’ve been too unwell to write much, and it’s a less unique experience than seeing Nez (it was my fourth time seeing Ray Davies, though I think the first since I started this blog). It wasn’t a fully acoustic show, but the first (and best) half of the set was.

  4. John said, on October 30, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Andrew, having seen Nesmith perform twice in the early 70s I can tell you that in my opinion he is in better voice than ever. The keyboard/synth percussion led to a couple of jarring John Shuttleworth moments, but on the whole I thought the RNCM gig was absolutely amazing. Tears in my eyes at several points, going into full blub mode when the Red Rhodes pedal steel solo soared magnificently in the encore. I was initially disappointed not to see a pedal steel on stage, but on reflection no-one could have taken the late, great man’s place in these songs.

  5. Ste said, on October 31, 2012 at 6:39 am

    I’m not sure about Hawkwind Girl, but you sure did bore me to tears for the half hour before the gig started. Pontificating so, really.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on October 31, 2012 at 8:10 am

      Well that’s what you get for listening in to other people’s conversation, isn’t it?

      • Ste said, on October 31, 2012 at 8:59 am

        It was fixed seating, buddy, so it’s not like I had a choice.

        So, did you get her number?

        • Andrew Hickey said, on October 31, 2012 at 11:58 am

          If my conversation had been as audible as you’re claiming, you’d have heard me mention my wife.
          Now fuck off, you are being utterly, incredibly rude, and personally I’d far, far rather be boring than be the kind of prick who waits until two days later to complain about a conversation they were eavesdropping over. All further posts from you are being blocked unread.

        • Illogical Volume said, on October 31, 2012 at 4:48 pm

          F- blog comment Ste.

          Must try harder, or – better yet – piss off. To paraphrase your own beloved mother: “Andrew’s got a wife, and anyway, he doesn’t like you!”

          • Andrew Hickey said, on October 31, 2012 at 7:08 pm

            Be fair to the man, David, he does have a point. You or I, being boring as we are, if we go to a gig we either go with a companion and talk to them, or maybe strike up a conversation with someone near by (though shutting up when the music starts). Failing that we might bring a book to read until the show starts, or a mobile internet device to distract us with, or just go and wait in the bar and have a drink. Those are clearly the boring options that boring people take.

            The non-boring — and totally non-completely-insane — behaviour at a gig is to sit on your own, in silence, listening to the conversations of strangers sat nearby. If those conversations bore you, the non-boring and non-insane response isn’t to do something else, like a boring person would, or join in the conversation and steer it to a more interesting topic, or even just say “please shut the fuck up before I kill you, you tedious little tit”. Those would *not* be the non-boring and non-insane options, despite what boring people like you or I think. The non-boring and non-insane option is to sit in silence, listening intently to the conversation and making a mental note of enough details that you can later track those total strangers down and tell them how dull they are. If you *really* want to make sure you are not being dull or boring you can imagine some kind of non-existent flirtation between them, and then maybe imagine them getting together, and inviting you to join in… that’s the *really* non-boring way to behave.

            So let that be a lesson to you, young man. Conversations with new people in which you discover a variety of shared interests (but perhaps talk a little too much because of tiredness) — boring. Eavesdropping on strangers and stalking them on the internet to tell them how dull they are — behaviour of an interesting person with a wide social circle and huge variety of interests.

            So now you know.

            • Illogical Volume said, on November 1, 2012 at 12:15 pm

              Think I’ll stick to lurking on the internet, “listening” in of exchanges on random comments threads, and then applying an arbitrary rating to them – this sounds like healthy behavior of the kind Ste might approve of, but I’ve put my own spin on it just so he doesn’t feel like he’s being ripped off.

  6. Roddy MacLeod said, on October 31, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    Nez, The Beach Boys, Neil Innes – we seem to have been to see the same bands. http://roddymacleod.wordpress.com/

    • Andrew Hickey said, on October 31, 2012 at 8:12 pm

      You’re clearly a man of taste ;)

  7. Tony Harms said, on November 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Hello Andrew, I’ve linked to you because of your political points but I enjoyed listening to a few Mike Nesmith songs on youtube. He’s obviously a man of parts. To me he sounds very like Pete Seeger but without the wild wit you find on albums like “Strangers and Cousins”.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on November 1, 2012 at 1:51 pm

      I can see the Pete Seeger comparison actually. Nesmith is a very witty man, but it’s a subtler, more self-deprecating wit than Seeger’s — calling an album “And The Hits Just Keep Coming”, for example, or, after his music publisher complained that none of his song titles had anything to do with their subjects, and asked why he couldn’t write pop songs, calling a Monkees song “Good Clean Fun”.

  8. Rob Roy Fingerhead said, on November 2, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Excellent, considered review – I can’t believe I didn’t found about this tour until it was over .. ah, well. But thanks for the review, which has sent me straight to the shelves to dig out the CDs!

  9. brian mattocks said, on November 3, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    The Monkees and dr who are both my biggies…….bot are magical! Michael nesmith was once going to produce new dr who in the 90s u know but that never happened. Im so glad this show happened as I never get a chance to see a solo monkee show, but do wish he had waited outside to meet his fans as Im told every show he did he snook off………I hope the new monkees sow sadly with the loss of Davy comes to the UK now. Best band ever.


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