Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork were doing what they could to keep the tone light Saturday night at the Greek Theatre, where the Monkees swung in for a stop on their first tour since the February death of the group's beloved frontman, Davy Jones.
Introducing "Randy Scouse Git," Dolenz acknowledged the dubious fashions of the Monkees' late-1960s heyday by donning a floral-patterned poncho similar to one he wore on the band's TV series. (He likened it accurately to a tablecloth.) And during "Your Auntie Grizelda," Tork did a goofy soft-shoe shuffle that demonstrated how little the intervening decades have diminished his appealing sense of self-deprecation.
But if the Monkees were down one crucial member Saturday, they were up another in the form of Michael Nesmith, who last toured the United States with the group in 1969. And unlike his bandmates, Nesmith seemed determined to push some heaviness at the Greek; he was less interested in hairstyles and comic timing than in songwriting and musicianship.
Toward the end of the two-hour show, in the midst of a lengthy sequence devoted to the group's trippy 1968 film "Head," Nesmith uttered a phrase that might strike fear into the heart of anyone who's ever cherished the Monkees for their giddy artificiality.
"It's time to get real," he said.
Oh, must it be?
As led by Jones, who visited the same venue last year with Dolenz and Tork, the Monkees long embodied a cheerfully streamlined version of '60s pop: Yea to humor and romance and insanely catchy melodies; nay to ambition and soul-searching and stultifying political statements.
Their music offered an honorable alternative to the excesses of the era's non-TV bands, and even when they fought to prove they could actually play -- as on 1967's "Headquarters" -- the struggle felt to the audience like no big deal. Reality wasn't the goal, entertainment was.
That appears to have changed for this outing, which launched last week in Escondido and wraps up Dec. 2 at New York's Beacon Theatre.
Standing onstage behind his 12-string electric guitar, Nesmith beamed indifference as the Monkees (assisted by seven additional musicians) proceeded through hits such as "Last Train to Clarksville" and "I'm a Believer."
He moved nearly out of view when Dolenz selected a woman in the front row to join him for Jones' signature number, "Daydream Believer." And Nesmith seemed chagrined to engage in the kind of banter -- including one awkward bit about his sparkly shoes -- that Monkees fans expect from these showbiz veterans.
The guitarist was more engaged when singing lead in a succession of songs he wrote: "Sunny Girlfriend" and "You Told Me" and "Circle Sky," the hard-edged garage-rock nugget that occasioned his threat to get real.
But even there his performance carried a sour defensive note. During "Mary, Mary," for instance, a giant video screen flashed an image of the record's sleeve, complete with this pointed assurance: "Words and music by Michael Nesmith."
The vibe eventually proved contagious too. "I sang this song long before 'Shrek'!" Dolenz needlessly reminded a theater full of ticket buyers prior to "I'm a Believer."
But at least that line -- a reference to the 2001 blockbuster that sent "I'm a Believer" back into the charts -- had a bit of wit to it. Most of Saturday's concert ran comparatively low on star power; it so lacked the center of gravity Jones provided that when the late frontman appeared in a sappy video montage set to "I Wanna Be Free," you felt its stabilizing force.
Nesmith finally summoned some of that energy himself shortly before the encore, in a brisk country-rock rendition of one of the Monkees' finest tunes, "What Am I Doing Hangin' Around." But given the hole at the heart of this chemistry-less concert, by then it was too late -- the question had already been posed.
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