First, silence. Then, slowly, a growing audience roar more than 50 years in the making is heard. Two singers shout out their own individual “Hello!” to the crowd, and the listener just knows this is going to be fun.
Suddenly, a classic Fender Telecaster fires up an arpeggio riff that opens the 1966 No. 1 single “Last Train to Clarksville,” and a band every bit as strong and secure as the recording industry’s legendary studio backing group “The Wrecking Crew” kicks in.
The Monkees are back, and the new concert album The Mike & Micky Show Live (Rhino Records) proves it beyond all form of mortal measure.
Both song and dance man Davy “Manchester Cowboy” Jones and the multi-instrumentalist soul of the original group, Peter Tork, have shuffled off their respective mortal coils—Jones in 2012 at age 66 following a sudden massive heart attack, and Tork from a long bout with cancer that claimed him only a few days after turning 77 last year.
That now leaves just Micky Dolenz, born to Hollywood parents as George Michael Dolenz back in 1945, and Michael Nesmith, bequeathed the name Robert Michael Nesmith in 1942 a few short years before mother Bette invented “Liquid Paper.”
For these two aging, hipster septuagenarians, naysayers might say it’s accomplishment enough if they are merely able to finish any of their concerts with their pipes—and their reputations—intact.
The sheer beauty, however, of this new live album—recorded during last year’s successful U.S. tour—is just how strongly Dolenz and Nesmith have endured, with excellence, and even transcendence, upon their band’s legacy.
The album was produced by longtime Monkees archivist Andrew Sandoval (who has been synonymous with all things Rhino practically since its inception in the late 1970’s).
The pristine mix features none other than Nesmith’s eldest son Christian Nesmith (who also sings back-up and plays guitar in the group).
This new release is that definitive “top-of-the-line” live concert album that The Monkees have never truly been able to deliver—until now.
Prior to this point, the only major label concert release for the “Pre-Fab Four” was the 1987 album Live 1967. It was followed in 2001 by the more extensive four-disc box set Summer 1967: The Complete U.S. Concert Recordings.
More a fanboy curiosity than a truly enjoyable concert album, the soundboard recordings from those 1967 shows are historically significant because they capture the group basically thrown into a massive concert tour.
The tour supported the hit TV show that spawned the group, with only a few weeks rehearsal, in addition to all-day-long TV episode shoots.
That was followed by evening recording sessions, trying their best to sound like The Wrecking Crew band on their records (not then possible), while also doing their best to sing the songs’ vocals (thanks to the screaming teenage crowds, not then audible).
A lot has happened, though, since those primitive sounding concerts from the ’60s. Armed with their own superior musicianship and remarkable shared stage presence, both Dolenz and Nesmith emerge in this concert album as exemplars in the art of show and the. show of art.
The super-tight live band is driven by drummer Rich Dart, whose phenomenal backbeat throughout powers the kick-ass rockin’ on the Nesmith-written “Mary Mary” and the light and playful sound on the Nesmith-sung “The Door Into Summer.”
“A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” is one of only two Davy Jones songs. The other, of course, is the obligatory “Daydream Believer,” both ably covered by Dolenz.
Time has revealed Micky Dolenz as “the” singing voice of The Monkees. He’s there on lead at the show’s start with “Last Train to Clarksville,” and he’s there to sing us into the finale with “I’m A Believer.”
And, he still performs all of these songs in their original keys, something that further defines him as one of rock ‘n roll’s best singers.
Nesmith, who only officially returned to the world of live Monkees shows after years away, starting back in 2013, has things both ways on the songs he sings.
Some, like “My Sunny Girlfriend” or “You Just May Be the One,” are sung in the original key. Others, like “Papa Gene’s Blues” (tucked into the “acoustic section” of the evening) or “Sweet Young Thing,” are pitched a little lower to better suit those contours and shadings more evident in the his older, baritone voice.
The real magic of the album, though, and of the “Mike & Micky” live shows, are those songs that have never been done before live, for example, “St. Matthew” or “Auntie’s Municipal Court,” both from their often-underrated fifth album The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees (1968).
Added to those are songs from the band’s newest—and, according to some, their best—album, aptly titled Good Times!, released in 2016 on the 50th anniversary of the band’s TV show and debut album.
Both the psychedelic-rock homage of “Birth of an Accidental Hipster” and the tender lyricism of “Me & Magdalena” from this twelfth Monkees studio album benefits from the Dolenz and Nesmith magic—first in a call-and-response fashion, then in the harmonious blend of two long-singing and still-standing brothers.
When Papa Nez tells the audience in a sweet moment of the album before the short acoustic set that he’s “never enjoyed working with anyone as much as Micky,” all true Monkees fans will likely find themselves close to shedding a tear—only to then be led into laughter when Micky drolly responds to Nez, “I never enjoyed working with anyone as much as me, too!”
It’s then you realize you are sharing time listening to two friends who also happen to be Monkees.
Though nearly all the songs in this concert are virtually note-for-note the same as the original recordings the song that, for this reviewer, actually improves in live performance beyond the original recording is, without question, Nesmith’s track “Tapioca Tundra.” And, this includes a version of “The Door Into Summer” set to become a hit track during the upcoming Summer of 2020.
The slightly slower arrangement of the song on this live album allows for a much better evocation of Nez’s words and themes. You can really hear the song’s dreamlike lyrics, and its images come to life a little more readily in the listener’s mind. Furthermore, the song’s tempo as originally recorded back in 1967 now feels a bit disjointed and uncomfortably hurried by way of comparison. Something slower and softer wins the game—even in rock music.
While it’s true the album sounds so much better than any previously recorded Monkees live shows (at times perhaps too much better, occasionally sacrificing spontaneity in place of sonic clarity), it also feels like something is missing from this musical Monkees missive—some essential element from the original blueprint that I believe far too many have lost sight of all these years.
For this reviewer, what’s missing is the presence of Peter Tork. Great as this recording and the “Mike & Micky” concert experience itself is, live Monkees music feels a little like watching a Marx Brothers movie that doesn’t feature the rascally and beatified Harpo in the cast.
Make no mistake, “The Mike & Micky Show Live” is a splendid live concert album and I think it should forever put to rest the notion that The Monkees were ultimately unable to cut the mustard as a viable music group on their own.
There is a rich collection of 25 performances here, each of which have the makings of a bountiful meal of music.
In the end, though, what’s missing on the listener’s fork is Tork. When you hear this group’s performance of Nesmith’s raucous 1968 rocker “Circle Sky,” it captures briefly the spirit of the original band onstage together as they figured out what they were as a group and who they were to each other in that permutation.
Tork often told a story of how, in the middle of a 1968 Monkees concert, they were performing live in Osaka, Japan. Davy came over with maracas in hand to Peter, thumping away on his bass, and shouted into Peter’s ear above the music and the crowd, “Hey, we’re gonna form a group!”
That small but fervent moment when Peter’s winsome dream that The Monkees would evolve from a “make-believe group on TV” into a real-life group–first achieved on the group’s third album, Headquarters, back in 1967–has now come full circle.
Or, better yet, full “Circle Sky,” since I have a real feeling that Davy and Peter are looking down from up in the sky at this new record. The feeling now is that, with “The Mike & Micky Show Live” captured and recorded for posterity, that “group” Peter and Davy joked about back in ’68 has finally and irreparably been formed.
When you get to hear this exquisite concert album, I think you’ll feel the same way. This is one for the ages—just as The Monkees have always been.