Shows I’ll Never Forget: Michael Nesmith, November 15, 2013

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At City Winery, Chicago: Since 2012, Michael Nesmith has toured around the country with the Monkees and as a solo act. In addition to his stellar Monkees compositions, Nesmith has amassed an impressive, genre-spanning catalog ranging from country to straightforward rock to touches of world music. After a sold-out April appearance at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Nesmith recently made a triumphant return to Chicago, this time treating fans to a different set list.

The enthusiastic audience spurred him on, his frequent grins and occasional rock-star stances revealing traces of the 1960s and ’70s Nesmith. At the same time, he used the occasion to reflect on his work, lending his present experience to his classic tracks.

Looking fit and trim and sporting his now-signature sequined shoes, Nesmith began by explaining the tour theme: “Movies of the Mind.” His songwriting process involves envisioning movie scenes, then writing lyrics to describe those vignettes. In between many songs, Nesmith encouraged fans to close their eyes and visualize scenes he narrated, then launched into tracks to accompany those stories. He began with the triptych containing “Calico Girlfriend,” “Nine Times Blue,” and “Little Red Rider,” all representing his earlier work with the First National Band.

Nesmith has lost little of his twang on the underrated “Nine Times Blue,” and the other two illustrate how he created a potpourri of country, rock, Latin, and R&B, establishing a postmodern type of country music. Another track from this period, the Nesmith staple “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care),” segued smoothly from soft rock to straightforward country rock.

Clearly relaxed and happy to be performing live, Nesmith occasionally closed his eyes, seemingly losing himself in the words and lyrics. He softly crooned the 1972 track “Tomorrow and Me” as if performing it for the first time. While he performed crowd pleasers like the classic “Different Drum,” he rearranged them to inject new life into familiar tunes. Nesmith and his excellent backing band lent a Parisian air to the country rock song, complete with simulated accordion and mandolin courtesy of Chris Scruggs (grandson of bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs). As Nesmith whispered words of love at the end, he inhabited the character of the song’s narrator. Cracking a smile as he gently strummed “Some of Shelley’s Blues,” he proved that his voice had weathered little with time.

The audience cheerfully responded to classics such as “Joanne” (where he hit all the high notes) and the poetic “Silver Moon.” Not surprisingly, tracks featured in Nesmith’s groundbreaking long-form video Elephant Parts drew a huge reaction from the crowd. The lilting Caribbean rhythms of “Rio” sounded even better live, with Nesmith wistfully describing how he plans to travel there via a boat or plane, complete with accompanying sound effects. He pseudo-rapped on the similarly themed “Casablanca Moon,” then half spoke the words to “Yellow Butterfly” as if verbally dramatizing the song’s story. Its tropical-meets-country mix still sounds innovative, with Nesmith demonstrating how country is at the root of Hawaiian, rock, and other music genres.

As usual, “Cruisin’” inspired a mass singalong, drawing smiles and chuckles from the singer. “Dance” and “Tonite” merge disco with rock, and the live renditions stressed the hard rhythms powerfully. As Nesmith almost yelled the lyrics, clearly having fun, the keyboardist mouthed “I love this part!” as he played a thrilling solo. Interestingly, he closed his set by returning full circle: “Grand Ennui” dates from his First National Band days, and in concert he showed how he gradually developed musically and stylistically but has always retaining his quirky songwriting technique.

Nesmith met the adoring audience’s demand for an encore with “Rising in Love” from 1992’s Tropical Campfires, and a rousing rendition of “Listen to the Band.” His only nod to the Monkees allowed his highly skilled band to show off, with all four men taking solos. As Nesmith assumed a rock-star pose, wielding his acoustic guitar, he showed that time has not dimmed his maverick streak and his ability to perform country rock and other genres with pathos and, at times, a sly wink.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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