by Pete Astor
Unfortunately, singer-songwriter, and erstwhile Monkee, Michael Nesmith has hit hard times. With the IRS on his heels, a manager who recently embezzled the majority of his assets, not to mention an expensive divorce from high-powered lawyer, one-time Kennedy spouse, Victoria, he has been forced back out on the road to pay off his debts. The upside of this for his fans is another chance to see one of the most original, under-recognised talents of the 1960s and ’70s perform his songs again.
Having read the stories, we know what he’s been through, but as he takes to the Union Chapel stage, he cuts a dignified figure in timeless cowboy boots and double denim – jeans and shirt – lean and elegant. Alongside him is B.J. Cole, English pedal steel virtuoso, covering for Red Rhodes tonight. As Nesmith plays the opening chords to ‘Papa Gene’s Blues’ everything falls into place. He’s even better than we could have hoped; pedal steel washes highlighting just how sophisticated and unusual his country-style chords are – just the right balance of the obvious and the unexpected.
After quietly dignified introductions, a dusty Rhythm King drum-machine is pressed into action for a selection of songs from his mid-’70s concept opus The Prison. With a liberal smattering of readings from the book which accompanied the record (such innovative ideas, even in the dark days of 1975!), the Union Chapel was a perfect venue for this innovative musical venerable. It was dignified and magical. Michael Nesmith, 2012, you’ve done it!
What actually happened? Oh dear, the truth? It wasn’t like the above at all. The Union Chapel was as beautiful as ever, and all we believers were ready for a good night. But before it had even started, there were danger signs. As my friend put it, “There’s a hell of a lot of keyboards on stage.” The band was a three-piece (acoustic guitar and vocal; bass and keyboards; keyboards and keyboards) but, thanks to the wonders of technology, it could have been an orchestra! And this, of course, is wrong. In a live setting, piling up the arrangements with layers of virtual instruments just sounds cheap, not extraordinary. We now inhabit a musical world that is post-technology. Everyone knows what everything can do; we can get an orchestra from Argos. What is special is the voice, the playing, the expression… Unfortunately, Nesmith chose to frame his songs with out-dated arrangements that sounded bland and over-polished when, really, all he had to do was sing and play the songs.
One of the distinguishing elements in Nesmith’s work has been his abiding interest in new technologies and approaches, whether this was The Prison’s book-with-soundtrack conceptor his 1979 music video PopClips TV show, an idea which Warner Communications tried to buy the rights to then parlayed into MTV. I’m not sure how happy we should be about this, but Nesmith obviously has quite a mind (good ideas are in his genes: his hard-up single mum invented Tippex and made the family their fortune). Unfortunately, tonight, his interest in innovation served his oeuvre ill. Typically, a song like ‘Propinquity’ balances perfectly a facility for the Great American Song with unusual chord structures and grandiloquent lyrical turns (that title!). Tonight, however, its charms were buried underneath synth washes, and, oh dear, ‘virtual’ pedal steel guitars.
It’s great that Nesmith can afford all this tinsel, but, honestly, a bad turn of events in his life might have given us all the chance to see him at his very best, instead of the faux state-of-the-art bunkum we got tonight.
Any biographical detail in the rst section of this review should be regarded as completely fictional.