I’m a believer! The Monkees rock NJPAC

Pop-rock pioneers take a fresh trip down memory lane

Call it a harbinger of happiness or maybe just a nice omen, but when I and thousands of other true believers descended upon NJPAC last Saturday night to discover the 1966 Monkeemobile parked out front of Prudential Hall, we collectively sensed that a very special evening was in store for us.

The Monkees were back in northern New Jersey, only a few hours after their triumphant stop in Atlantic City the night before, and the heavy rains that had pounded the county all day were giving way to a bright blue sky just before showtime. The glistening Pontiac GTO Monkeemobile was provided by Hollywood show-cars collector John Sbrigato of Brooklyn, who graciously allowed hundreds of thrilled fans to sit inside the iconic red and white vehicle throughout the course of the event.

As we made our way to our seats, I couldn’t help but take note of the all-encompassing diversity that comprises The Monkees’ core fanbase. Originally lambasted and branded by self-righteous music critics as a shameless Hollywood stunt to cash in on The Beatles mind-blowing success, The Monkees continue to delight and draw crowds of all ages almost 50 years after their debut. As the houselights dimmed, the oversized movie screen hovering above the stage came to life, filled with black-and-white video clips of the boys’ earliest auditions, bloopers and outtakes culled from their hit television show. Then the stage lights brightened to reveal the obviously older yet familiar faces of the band members, greeted by the roar of an adoring crowd.

ROCK OF AGES — The cohesive two hour show was supplemented by a constant barrage of Monkees TV show highlights and graphics displayed just above the NJPAC stage. Photo by David VanDeventer
ROCK OF AGES — The cohesive two hour show was supplemented by a constant barrage of Monkees TV show highlights and graphics displayed just above the NJPAC stage. Photo by David VanDeventer

The classic opening guitar riff of “Last Train To Clarksville” rang out and instantly we were all embarking upon The Monkees’ magical music tour. The 30-plus set of songs, starting with “Last Train” and climaxing with a rousing encore featuring “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” could best be described as an audio/video roller coaster of what the band did best. The two-hour show was a deftly mixed treasure chest of monster hits, diehard-fan favorites, and even a few obscure gems from the group’s chart-topping 1960’s heyday.

Following the sad and untimely death of singer Davy Jones in February 2012, the surviving trio of Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith re-emerged later that same year to commence upon a critically acclaimed and publicly well-received new wave of Monkee-mania, continuing with this current leg of the tour. Make no mistake; the loss of Davy Jones to the group’s stage show is most certainly undeniable. The diminutive Brit, imbued with enormous charisma and wit, was a cornerstone and magnet of the band’s early appeal among teenage and pre-teen girls. And nobody could shake a tambourine or pair of maracas quite like the effervescent Mr. Jones. But the latter-day Jones/Dolenz reunion tours often overshadowed the contributions of the other bandmates, leaning a little too heavily on just the hit songs.

Fans getting ready to see The Monkees at any of their upcoming summertime gigs need to realize one thing immediately before going. There is a lot of Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork on this current tour. A lot. And that’s actually a very good thing. The return of “Nez” to the fold signals a new chapter of the group actually behaving like an honest-to-goodness rock ‘n’ roll band, which is what they originally fought so hard to become in the first place. Backed by a polished, seven-piece touring unit which includes Mike Nesmith’s son Christian on guitar and Micky’s sister Coco Dolenz on backing vocals, the recent shows are emboldened with a muscular musicality and tightly knit interplay that elevates this far beyond what easily could have become just another stale nostalgia act.

On songs such as the easygoing “Papa Gene’s Blues” and the rollicking “You Told Me,” Nesmith has never sounded better. Compared to the understated original recordings, the tall Texan’s vocals have only improved with the passage of time. Nesmith, the notoriously “missing Monkee” from several key reunions, was clearly enjoying himself, alternating from rhythm to lead guitar depending upon the needs of each song.

LISTEN TO THE BAND  — Bandmates Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz proved to the delighted NJPAC audience that there was more than enough Monkee magic to go around for everyone. Photo by David VanDeventer
LISTEN TO THE BAND — Bandmates Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz proved to the delighted NJPAC audience that there was more than enough Monkee magic to go around for everyone. Photo by David VanDeventer

Tork, still in lovable “bumbling Monkee” mode at Saturday’s show, could very well be the most musically proficient member of the group. Whether he was providing a sweet slide-guitar solo on “The Kind Of Girl I Could Love,” lively banjo licks on “Sweet Young Thing,” or solid bass and keyboard parts on various other songs, Tork displayed the real-life musicianship that the few remaining Monkee-bashers still can’t come to grips with. And his silly, Ringo Starr-esque take on “Your Auntie Grizelda” had the audience chuckling over the sheer absurdity of it all.

Dolenz has always been the lightning rod of the bunch; a bundle of raw energy wrapped up in a wacky, Marx Brothers’ persona. But don’t let all his mugging for the camera fool you. Micky Dolenz can still sing. At an age when most rock ‘n’ rollers are being fitted for a rocking chair, the 69-year-old performer has lost little of his vocal range or James Brown-inspired stage presence. Huge Dolenz-powered hits, such as “She,” “Steppin’ Stone” and the Neil Diamond-penned “I’m a Believer,” all sounded fantastic on Saturday night, fleshed out by the competent backing band and hilarious TV show highlights focusing on the boys in their glory days. The Austin Powers-ish groove of “Mary Mary” had the crowd feeling no pain, and The Monkees were only getting started.

A block of songs from their early 1967 release called “Headquarters” allowed the guys to spread their wings sonically. As legend has it, The Monkees briefly wrestled creative control from Hollywood producers, resulting in the garage rock-tinged “Headquarters” album, which the band is clearly fond of to this day. When I interviewed Micky Dolenz two weeks ago by phone, he had mentioned the band’s present dynamics would be similar to those on that 1967 tour. And on Saturday night, there he was, drumming like crazy and providing those soaring high-harmony backing vocals to Nesmith-led tunes such as “You May Just Be The One” and “The Girl I Knew Somewhere.”

SHADES OF AWESOME — Micky Dolenz lends his harmony vocals to Peter Tork’s emotionally charged rendition of The Monkees’ classic “Shades Of Gray” ballad. Photo by David VanDeventer

The next two songs demonstrated the unique versatility of a band that many wrongly pigeonholed as “bubblegum music” at its inception. The hauntingly insightful “Shades Of Gray” proved to be one of several emotionally charged moments of the evening. Singing lead and playing piano alongside the harmonizing Dolenz, Tork delivered a heartfelt take on the bittersweet tune about learning and loss. The enraptured audience was quickly jarred back to happier thoughts by the Dolenz-composed “Randy Scouse Git,” a timpani drum-fueled blend of Sgt. Pepper-like noise and lyrical gibberish. “For Pete’s Sake,” more familiar to casual fans as the Tork song that closed “The Monkees” TV show episodes, was up next, followed by Dolenz belting out the rowdy rocker known as “No Time.” Nesmith extended his country-folk excursion with “The Door Into Summer” and the bizarre “Tapioca Tundra.” Dolenz then returned with his proto-jazz rap number called “Goin’ Down,” all the while applying his trademark dance moves across every inch of stage he could navigate.

“HEAD” GAMES — Micky takes the audience on a crazy underwater trip with “The Porpoise Song”, one of the many surreal tracks found on their classic 1968 release called “Head.” Photo by David VanDeventer

And then it was time for “Head,” considered by many cinema historians to be one of the most under-rated and subversive rock ‘n’ roll movies ever filmed. So what can you say about the brilliant yet career-damaging 1968 Monkees motion picture called “Head” that hasn’t been said already? You can say this: The songs from that album are pretty incredible and still hold up amazingly well after more than 45 years. “The Porpoise Song” lost nothing of its trippy majesty, with Dolenz managing all the high notes while the film’s infamous “bridge leap” sequence plays out behind the musicians on the giant, suspended screen. Tork’s Arabian-flavored “Can You Dig It?,” Nesmith’s hard rocking “Circle Sky” and the gorgeous, sweeping vocals of Dolenz on Carole King’s wistful “As We Go Along” all combined to remind even the most stubborn detractor of The Monkees that those four young men were actually way ahead of their time.

The surviving trio of Mike, Peter and Micky have soldiered on successfully, but they and their fans have not forgotten Davy. The houselights dimmed for a moment and suddenly there’s the young Jones on screen, tap dancing his way through the entire length of “Daddy’s Song,” just as it appeared in “Head.” When the band retakes the stage, the audience is treated to one of those wonderfully weird, “happy yet sad” moments in life as Dolenz leads the group through a slightly slowed and sentimental rendition of “Daydream Believer,” considered by most to be the late, great Mr. Jones’ signature tune.

IT’S THE MUSIC THAT MATTERS — The Monkees were clearing enjoying themselves on stage at NJPAC. Photo by David VanDeventer

The country shuffle of Nesmith singing “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round?” closed out the evening, but the packed house at NJPAC wasn’t going anywhere. And wisely so. Within seconds, The Monkees were back for a single encore, unloading the one-two punch of Nesmith’s regal “Listen To The Band” and Dolenz chronicling suburban life in the West Orange-inspired mega hit, “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” The show concluded and the faithful flock made its way to the nearest exits. Backstage, the band was already prepping for their next performance, set for the following evening in Huntington, N.Y.

And so it goes. Another night, another gig. But ask yourself this: What is it about The Monkees and their music that, with the exception of a few narrow-minded Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters, seems so timeless and appealing to the rest of the planet? How did a potentially disposable TV phenomenon from the 1960s turn into a beloved entertainment institution? The Monkees weren’t The Beatles. We get it. But The Monkees are The Monkees. Their music and their merriment and all those wonderful memories that they continue to trigger for generations of fans cannot easily be explained, nor should there ever be a need for them to be defended.

Something as simple as making tens of millions of people happy for almost half a century? That’s a pretty powerful legacy and one of which The Monkees should be very proud.

David VanDeventer is an entertainment reporter for Worrall Media and can be contacted at pics@thelocalsource.com. Be sure to check out Dave’s recent and revealing interview with Micky Dolenz at http://essexnewsdaily.com/events/the-monkees-are-coming-to-town
Dave’s exclusive photo album of  “The Monkees live at NJPAC” can be found at http://essexnewsdaily.com/gab_gallery/essex-county-the-monkees-rock-njpac-may-2014-photos-by-dave-vandeventer

HOT WHEELS — Monkees fans were treated to a very rare appearance by the iconic Pontiac GTO Monkeemobile, provided by Hollywood car collector John Sbrigato of Brooklyn, posing at bottom left between his son and the author. For more information about John’s growing line of famous vehicles, drop him a line at tvshowcars@gmail.com. Photo by Lisa Greene