Quick, name a figure from popular culture who has: (a) penned a Top 40 hit that helped launch another artist’s career; (b) starred in a top-rated TV show; (c) pioneered a certain style of popular music; (d) executive-produced a cult movie classic; and (e) created a breakthrough format for presenting music. Give up? It’s none other than old Wool Hat himself, Mike Nesmith, who (a) wrote “Different Drum,” the song that made Linda Ronstadt famous; (b) along with Davey Jones, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, was a member of the Prefab Four, otherwise known as The Monkees; (c) with his post-Monkees band, The First National Band, is credited with forming the style of music that became known as “country-rock”; (d) was the executive producer of “Repo Man,” and (e) created a music video program called “Pop Clips” for Nickelodeon, which was later sold to Time Warner and became the format for what came to be known as MTV. Whew!
With that formidable of a résumé, and having just recently turned 70, one would think that Mr. Nesmith would be content to rest on his laurels and enjoy retirement. Not a chance. Instead, he has just embarked on his first solo tour in 21 years, landing at A Prairie Home Companion’s home base on Friday, April 5.
Taking the stage without the trademark wool cap of his Monkees’ era (although he probably needed one outdoors on that blustery, cold night), Nesmith looked remarkably trim and fit for a man his age. Clearly, he was way too smart to get caught up in the rock ‘n roll lifestyle that shortened the life spans of many of his contemporaries. He even set aside the stool that had been placed onstage for him, preferring instead to stand and strum his 12-string for the entirety of his 90-minute show.
After opening the show with the only song he would play from the Monkees’ catalogue, “Papa Gene’s Blues,” Nesmith took special pains to introduce the members of his band right away. Although they are all seasoned touring musicians (with individual credits ranging from Pink Floyd to Rascal Flatts), the one name that resonated most loudly with this reviewer was Chris Scruggs, grandson of legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs, and himself a former member of the progressive country band, BR 549. Young Scruggs did yeoman work on acoustic, electric and steel guitar, and mandolin, all night long.
The format for the evening was somewhat unusual. Nesmith noted that he would be playing favorites from his solo career, more or less in chronological order, introducing each one by describing a particular setting for the audience to imagine, as the backdrop for the song. On occasion, the setting would be used for two or three songs played back-to-back, but for the most part each song had its own introduction. The danger in following such a format is that the momentum created by the previous song will be lost during the exposition of the next selection. Indeed, by late in the set the process had become somewhat tedious and not terribly enlightening.
From the urban apartment-dweller setting for “Propinquity,” Nesmith led us to the 1930’s, where the ubiquitous He and She encounter each other at a diner, on a moonlit night, but they each drive off alone, in opposite directions, musing about what might have been. The song, “Tomorrow And Me,” featured a big, orchestral-like arrangement, thanks to the synthesizer work of keyboardist Boh Cooper and Joe Chemay, who did double duty on bass and keys. 1950’s Paris was the backdrop for a couple at crossed paths: “She wants to be a mother; He wants to be a lover,” intoned Mr. Nesmith. The song, of course, was “Different Drum,” done in waltz time, with Chris Scruggs on the mandolin and Boh Cooper adding accordion-like touches on his keyboard.
Perhaps his most well-known post-Monkees song, “Joanne,” was coupled with “Silver Moon,” with Scruggs’ pedal steel bolstering Nesmith’s falsetto on the familiar extended verse endings on the former. Scruggs then employed the unusual technique of using the back of his hand to coax steel drum-like sounds from his steel guitar, for the calypso arrangement on the latter tune.
“Some Of Shelley’s Blues,” was done in slow, deliberate style, a far cry from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s signature country-rock version. Boh Cooper’s mournful organ intro eventually gave way to a more grandiose solo, with Chris Scruggs once again providing tasteful fills. Returning to more South of the border rhythms, Nesmith paired the bossa nova of “Rio” with “Casablanca Moonlight,” with drummer Paul Leim doing a nifty job of driving the island beat on the latter on his electronic drum set.
Up to this point, it is unlikely that any of the musicians had broken a sweat. That would soon change, with a rocking version of “Running From The Grand Ennui,” featuring a monstrous slide solo by Chris Scruggs. The follow up, the oddball “Cruisin’ (Lucy and Ramona),” with its strange lyrics about three characters meeting on Sunset Strip, was slower, but still forceful, with a bass line that MC Hammer might have borrowed for “Can’t Touch This.”
Nesmith wrapped up the set with a trilogy of songs from his 1974 short story and accompanying EP called “The Prison.” The “Opening Theme (Life,The Unsuspecting Captive),” was a return to the big, orchestral synthesizer arrangements that marked the early songs of the set, where the pace picked up in the samba-like “Marie’s Theme,” ending, appropriately enough, with the “Closing Theme.” The final song of the set was another Latin-sounding tune, “Laugh Kills Lonesome,” inspired, according to Nesmith, by a Charles Marion Russell painting of a group of cowboys sitting around a campfire, laughing about something. Perhaps Mel Brooks drew inspiration from the same painting for the notorious campfire scene from “Blazing Saddles.”
The lone encore was further evidence of Nesmith’s tech-savviness. He recalled his good friend from The First National Band, the late Red Rhodes, whose steel guitar work was the foundation of the band’s seminal country-rock sound. To pay tribute to his dear friend, Nesmith was able to cull one of Rhodes’ solos from an old concert recording of “Thanx For The Ride,” which he and then band then proceeded to play, with Rhodes’ taped solo meshing perfectly with the live performance. It was a touching moment, and a generous display of friendship. And with that, Nesmith and the band linked arms for a farewell bow and left the stage. One need only look at Nesmith’s website to see where he’s playing next. However, what direction his amazing and innovative life will take next is anyone’s guess. Perhaps he himself doesn’t even know.