By Wes Eichenwald, special to the American-Statesman
The year 2016 has thus far brought many things, many of them tumultuous, disturbing and horrid. But there’s been at least one pleasant surprise: Against all odds, 2016 has also been the Year of the Monkees.
Or at least it’s shaping up as one of their best years since the 1960s. Amid so many other 40th and 50th anniversaries of cultural landmarks, you’d assume that the so-called Prefab Four’s golden anniversary tour (their TV show premiered in 1966) would have been a slam-dunk in any case, in which a crowd-pleasing heritage act jogs through a victory lap in one last nostalgic go-round for their aging fan base.
But add to the mix their new, surprisingly delightful hit album, “Good Times!” — which avoids the disappointment of their other post-‘60s recordings and is winning general acclaim as their best since their swingin’ heyday — and you’ve got something special. Like their contemporary Brian Wilson, the seventysomething trio of Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith – reduced at the Paramount last night to the duo of Dolenz and Tork plus backup band, because Nesmith played what was billed as his last show as a Monkee earlier this month – found new life collaborating with younger musicians who had grown up on their early work and knew how to craft new variations on their distinctive sound. Songs by Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne), who also produced the album, Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Andy Partridge (XTC) blend seamlessly with compositions from Boyce and Hart, Neil Diamond, Carole King and Harry Nilsson. The album deftly bridges the decades, as if 1968 was followed directly by 2016.
That was much the case at the Paramount, too. Dolenz’s 71-year-old voice has held up remarkably well; close your eyes and you could imagine the decades melting away. The show wasn’t dissimilar from their 2013 Long Center concert. A movie screen still showed scenes and images from the TV show, often in sync with the song being played. But there were a few differences: Along with Nesmith’s absence and the new songs, instead of the band inviting an audience member onstage to sing “Daydream Believer,” the late Davy Jones appeared onscreen to provide the vocal as Dolenz and Tork accompanied him, along with a good portion of the transported audience.
The Monkees started out, of course, as comic entertainment, and Tork, a wizened if still spry elf with the soul of the Greenwich Village folkie he was, isn’t afraid to go for laughs by telling occasional bad jokes and cavorting. Old showman Dolenz, affable as ever in porkpie hat and vest, relied on tried-and-true shtick like donning a replica ‘60s poncho for “Randy Scouse Git.” He also mentioned to cheers that his mom grew up in Austin and attended UT, “and told me many stories about doing unspeakable things at Barton Springs.”
Like any successful veteran band, the Monkees can call on both the hits they have to play (“Daydream Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “I’m A Believer”) but also the decidedly more minor-key deep cuts favored by longtime fans. One of the better moments was “Shades of Gray,” again using Jones’ recorded vocal, with Dolenz facing the screen in contemplation. Musically, the Monkees were always more quirky and experimental than casual observers gave them credit for, with their fusion of pure ‘60s bubblegum pop, the still-underrated Nesmith’s early country-rock fusion, and entry-level hippie psychedelia, not to mention the casual anti-establishment tone of much of the TV show and their 1968 plot-free cult movie “Head.”
The band powered through the set with panache like the seasoned pros they are, rocking harder in the post-intermission set. If the mostly mature (45 to infinity) audience sat puzzled by the psychedelic excursions of “Circle Sky” and “Porpoise Song” from “Head,” with some of the oldest fans driven early to the exits, they roared their approval of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” famously covered by the Sex Pistols; Tork stuck his tongue out at the finish in a seeming acknowledgment.
They’re not saying it’s their farewell tour, but it’s hard to imagine the Monkees reaching a higher point than they’ve achieved in 2016. In a year when so many musical bright lights have gone dark, it’s reassuring to realize there are still a few good times left in, of all things, an occasional touring band that began as a fake rock group on a silly TV show and existed as such for only two years, a very long time ago. Along with helping to move the culture forward – and oh, yes they did, via pioneering rock videos, the indirect influence of “Head” on avant-garde cinema, and providing millions of kids with a gateway to the counterculture – they’ve also provided us with more than a fair share of inspiration. Talk about keeping it weird.
Against all odds, the Monkees abide. Hey, hey, indeed.