MANHATTAN, NY—Merging country music, rock and pop long before Gram Parsons Nudie-suited his way onto the scene as the alleged “founder” of the genre, Mike Nesmith has worn many hats in his 50-plus-year career.
In addition to the trademark wool cap he sported as guitarist/vocalist/songwriter for the Monkees, Nesmith has enjoyed success as the author of Linda Ronstadt’s Different Drum and tracks covered by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; donned a cowboy hat for a run as leader of The First National Band on two brilliant 1970 releases (Magnetic South and Loose Salute); a video conceptualist’s cap for 1981’s Grammy-winning Elephant Parts; a soundtrack composer including 1982’s Timerider: The Adventure Of Lyle Swann; a cult status tag as executive producer for Alex Cox’s recently re-released 1984 classic, Repo Man; and, among other films, as an actor in 1988’s Tapeheads.
A low-key, captivating, musically enchanting evening powered by the sublime playing of drummer Paul Leim, bassist/backing vocalist Joe Chemay, keyboardist/backing vocalist Boh Cooper and the amazing fretboard dexterity of Chris Scruggs on guitar, steel guitar, mandolin and backing vocals, Nesmith kicked things off with “one of the first things I ever wrote” from the Monkees’ 1966 debut album, Papa Gene’s Blues.
Performing, for the most part, to the already converted with a smattering of younger faces in the crowd and with “the Monkees thing out of the way,” brief, anecdotal introductions and vivid, impressionistic scenarios for each ensuing song allowed Nesmith to work the setlist in semi-chronological order and to link tunes together via history, circumstance, place or time. “These songs play out like little movies in my head,” he offered, “so I’ll share those [movies] with you.”
Hitting the high notes as if it were still 1967, Nesmith’s uplifting “Propinquity” begat a moody “Tomorrow And Me,” which was followed by a sadly transcendent, mandolin-fueled version of “Different Drum” that wound itself down into the mournful melancholy and longing of a steel guitar-drenched “Joanne.”
Picking up the pace with a lilting, bossa-Buffet “Silver Moon” presaged an audience (which included Elvis Costello) sing-along on “Some Of Shelly’s Blues” that surprised and delighted the blushing 70-year-old Nesmith, who, in turn “aw shucked” the crowd before rewarding them with “Rio,” “Casablanca Moonlight,” “Crusin’,” a majestic trilogy from The Prison album, a guitar-ramped “Grand Ennui,” and 2006’s very poppy “Rays.”
The announced last song, “Laugh Kills Lonesome,” led to groans and a loudly demanded encore that included a heartfelt take on “Tonight” followed by the ironically titled “Thanx For The Ride,” which featured Nesmith’s former First National Band-mate, the late Red Rhodes’ mournful pedal steel piped in as if from heaven.