The safest thing an aged pop star can do in concert is play the hits. Michael Nesmith, who sold out the Birchmere on Wednesday as part of his first solo tour in more than two decades, has never played it safe. And at 70, he isn’t about to start doing so.
The Monkees were the 800-pound gorilla at the show. The group is responsible for the majority of Nesmith’s fame, both from the hit 1960s TV show starring members of the quartet and the tens of millions of records the band sold. But Nesmith steered clear of the smash singles from the Monkees’ songbook on this night. Instead, backed by a new quartet, Nesmith delivered a fascinating — if supremely mellow — 90-minute set filled with songs he had written and released on solo records or with a relatively unknown but beloved group he led in the 1970s, First National Band.
Given Nesmith’s past, taking the songs-less-heard route in crafting a set list makes fine sense. He has participated in only a few Monkees reunion shows through the years, profitable as they were. (Nesmith’s mother invented Liquid Paper and willed her fortune to him, meaning he didn’t have to play for the money.) And the Monkees’ music, great as it surely was, has always been bittersweet for Nesmith. Producers of the TV show wanted Nesmith and his young mates to merely croon the lyrics handed to them by some of the best songwriters in pop history. While the Monkees’ alliances with the pros went swimmingly — Neil Diamond gave them “I’m a Believer,” for example, and Carole King gifted them with “Pleasant Valley Sunday” — that tack never sat well with the band. Legend holds that Nesmith, who had already started a musical career as a country-rock artist (releasing records as Michael Blessing) before being cast as the hat-wearing Mike, put his fist through a wall of the Beverly Hills Hotel while demanding that musical director Don Kirshner let the Monkees play their own instruments in the studio. Kirshner was fired. Nesmith boldly risked his own job again by railing to a reporter from the Saturday Evening Postin 1967 that the music put out under the Monkees name was “totally dishonest.” “Do you know how debilitating it is to sit up and have to duplicate somebody else’s records?” he said.
Perhaps as a reaction to what he endured as a young artist, Nesmith, strumming a 12-string guitar, told folks more than once that he had written all the songs he was going to play. And before each tune he described the setting he wanted the audience to think about while taking in the piece.
Take, for example, his introduction to “Different Drum,” a breakup tune and the best known of his own compositions because of Linda Ronstadt’s chart-topping cover with the Stone Poneys: “1950s sidewalk cafe . . . the whole scene bustles like a painting from Renoir . . . There is a distance between them . . . She wants to be a mother and he wants to be a lover . . . There is a sadness.”
And there was indeed sadness in Nesmith’s rendering. Whereas Ronstadt’s version soared and she gave her goodbyes in upper octaves, Nesmith’s was understated, and the climactic lines were more spoken than sung. “Some of Shelly’s Blues” was also set up as a soundtrack to a relationship dissolving before one’s ears and had a complementary low-key arrangement. Nesmith, sans the hat of his youth and wearing a coat and tie, exuded a Mister Rogers-level of serenity while rendering the melancholia.
The night’s only real rocking moment came during “Grand Ennui,” with guitarist Chris Scruggs playing loud-distorted slide riffs and even soloing with his teeth (a la Jimi Hendrix, briefly an opening act for the Monkees in 1967). Nesmith seemed shy about having things get so rocking at his age, wondering out loud for a few seconds if all the “parental boogie-ing” going on in the club would embarrass “the children.”
“But they’re not here!” he said, looking out over the audience and seeing the room full of folks as mature as he is.
McKenna is a freelance writer.