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Clubland: ‘Cosmic Cowboy’ Michael Nesmith takes Iron Horse crowd for a musical ride

Michael Nesmith

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Michael Nesmith was onstage at the Iron Horse last Thursday night, honest as always, warmly telling the standing-room-only crowd how he originally didn’t want to be there.

The 70 year old — still best known for his time in The Monkees, though he’s been a solo artist, author and highly successful entrepreneur for more than four decades since — admitted that when he heard he’d been booked at the Northampton venue, he wasn’t interested.

“I don’t do club shows,” he said he told his agent, who replied, well, you’re doing this one. “Why?” Nesmith pressed. His agent stood firm and assured him, “You’ll see when you get there.”

And Nesmith was visibly pleased with the sold-out room full of vocal, supportive fans in the homey nightspot. He beamed as the applause roared, wedged in with his fellow musicians on the small stage.

“I don’t think we’ve ever played this close together before,” he commented with a smile, looking around at his bandmates. “I hope we’re not combustible.”

He’d brought along Boh Cooper on keyboards, Chris Scruggs (Earl’s grandson) on electric guitar and pedal steel, Joe Chemay on bass and Paul Leim on electronic drums.

The audience (which included fellow Monkee Peter Tork, who lives nearby in Connecticut) was as packed as the stage: Hours before the show, on a wildly windy day, the shivering line of fans waiting to get inside stretched from the front door to the end of the building, hugged the corner and continued down through the bank parking lot. People had made treks to be there for the rare event.

Nesmith came onstage in a suit jacket and jeans with a big smile and a jolly wave of his hand and began with “Papa Gene’s Blues,” the one Monkees tune of the night, its perky country picking replaced by a drowsy dreamy tempo.

Fans in the crowd, at least a few of whom cradled the Monkees’ 1966 debut LP in a protective polyethylene sleeve against their chests, cheered after every few lines of lyric.

Nesmith set the night’s rhythm right away. Instead of filling the space between songs with typical stage patter, he prefaced each tune with a pre-written descriptive scene; the crowded room seemed to hang on his every word.

“These songs live like little movies in my mind,” he said and shared the cinematic set-ups with the audience; almost every one detailed a life-changing moment between a mythical “he” and “she.”

One described a couple, in a messy house, strained by money concerns. She decides she’s leaving; he has something to say. The narrating Nesmith wrapped up the scene: “It takes two to tango and two to get a divorce, but only one loving thought to save a family ... the song is ‘Some of Shelly’s Blues.’” Big cheers went up as Nesmith began one of his oldest solo tunes.

The 1 hour and 40 minute concert was basically a greatest-hits show of his 50 years of songwriting outside the Monkees phenomenon, though the tunes were often given new dimensions by his spoken set-ups. He placed “Different Drum” (his song that became a 1967 hit for Linda Ronstadt and The Stone Poneys) in Paris in the 1950s, sidewalk cafe style, the band filling the air with mandolin and synthesized accordion.

Nesmith has always followed his own path and his current touring band is no different. It included three keyboards, two laptops, electronic drums and pedal steel guitar, which created Muzak-esque orchestration with new age/Caribbean touches. It was odd to see live musicians making such calm, canned-sounding music.

The edgeless ocean of sound made for a pristine backdrop for Nesmith’s shimmering 12-string acoustic guitar, tuned down a whole step to accommodate the changing range of his voice — which, in this context, sounded stronger than ever; he sang and held a passionate high C to finish “Silver Moon.”

The audience went nuts at the end of that tune. “Well ... gosh,” he said smiling, rocking back on his heels in aw-shucks appreciation.

For the upbeat “Grand Ennui,” Leim set his drum pads to “heavy metal” and Scruggs stood up and rocked the snot out of a slide guitar solo. He was easily the band’s silent star, playing pretty, shimmering Hawaiian guitar on “Tomorrow and Me” and tastefully fantastic pedal steel on “Rio,” coaxing some very cool seagull sounds out of the instrument at song’s end.

Nesmith and band played his groovy 1979 video hit “Cruisin,” but after that loopy new-wave tune, this writer’s eyelids started gaining weight. The show’s slow low point was a medley of three cuts from his 1974 “book with a sound track” “The Prison” — an obviously important work for him, but not the most invigorating piece of music.

The show ended with the light 1992 tune “Laugh Kills Lonesome.” The crowd gave a standing ovation and the thankful Nesmith said they had one more song planned, but he wasn’t going to bother going through the motions of walking off stage.

“I know I didn’t leave and come back, but ya gotta understand, this is all we’ve got, kids,” he said amicably.

The encore was a tune which, thanks to modern technology, included a pedal steel part played on a 1970 record by Nesmith’s good friend, longtime collaborator and master musician, the late Red Rhodes. The recorded solo was sewn into the band’s live performance right there at the Horse for a perfect show-ending song, especially for a guy who’s sometimes nicknamed the Cosmic Cowboy: “Thanx for the Ride.”

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