Concert Review: Michael Nesmith, The Magic Bag, Ferndale, MI, 4/7/13

For years, Michael Nesmith famously avoided the concert stage, both as a solo artist and as a member of the Monkees. His last Monkees shows had been the European leg of the 1997 tour for Justus, while his last solo tour came in 1992. Fans clamoring for a live appearance by “The Wool Hat,” had learned to temper their expectations.

Then, in late 2012, Nesmith decided to hit the concert trail again, beginning with some solo shows in England and later reuniting with the surviving Monkees (Davy Jones died last February) for a reunion tour. The shows with the Monkees were Nesmith’s first in America since 1969. While he was possibly sensing his own mortality in light of Jones’ passing, Nesmith has stated he missed playing live — which brings us to 2013.

Nesmith is in the midst of a 17-city U.S. tour, which made its way to Ferndale, MI, just outside of Detroit on April 7, 2013. Backed by an ace band, which includes Boh Cooper on keyboards, Nesmith alums Paul Leim on drums and Joe Chemay on bass and Chris Scruggs (grandson of Earl) on pedal steel and lead guitar, Nesmith played songs covering all aspects of his solo career up until 2006’s Rays.

The show opened with “Papa Gene’s Blues,” the lone Monkee song in the set. Nesmith seems to draw a sharp line between “Monkee Mike” and solo Michael, but recognizes the importance of this song in his catalog. In spite of some on-stage monitor issues, Nesmith delivered a fun, if laid-back rendition of this fan favorite.

The Monkeemobile was parked out in front of the venue and Nesmith was quick to comment about the car’s appearance, seeming surprised it was there. When a fan suggested he should sign it, he demonstrated his trademark quirky sense of humor, replying, “We will always have Paris.” Nesmith said that he viewed his songs as mini movies in his mind and, as such, he told stories to set the scene for each one, giving the already intimate show a VH1 Storytellers feel.

“Different Drum,” made famous by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys had a decidedly European flair, with Scruggs on mandolin, and keyboards imitating accordions while the song moved along in waltz time. Nesmith offers a heartfelt vocal on the track, accompanying himself on his 12-string acoustic. “Some of Shelley’s Blues” was a highlight of the set, showcasing Nesmith’s love of country music and punctuated by Cooper on organ.

The Elephant Parts era is represented with the Latin-tinged “Rio,” featuring fine keyboard and pedal steel work from Cooper and Scruggs respectively, and a fun version of “Cruisin’.” The latter in particular was well received by the crowd. Nesmith seemed ready to pass the pedal steel torch from the late Red Rhodes to Scruggs, who proved not only adept at that instrument, but also regular slide guitar on such tracks as “The Grand Ennui.”

Nesmith seemed to lose the crowd a bit during “Rays” and his selections from The Prison, but it seemed more from lack of familiarity than anything. He brought them back with an energetic “Laugh Kills Lonesome” and the closing “Thanks For the Ride,” which featured Rhodes’ pedal steel guitar from the original track as a tribute — a fitting way to end the show.

Nesmith is said to be recording an album with this band and has previewed a new track through his Facebook page. He seems genuinely touched that people still care about his music and he and his band seemed to feed off the crowd’s energy. Nesmith was at the forefront of the country-rock movement and only now seems to be getting the recognition he deserves. On this night, a fine singer/songwriter was on display.

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