Great songs can transcend a lot. No matter what kind of crass commercialism is used to sell them, the hooks still grab you, the lyrics still make you smile, or contemplate, or cry.
The Monkees stand as one of the purest examples of this crassness, of the depths the entertainment industry will plunge to feed the gaping maw of its bottom line. By making a goofy TV show about a fake band that lifted the formula of the Beatles wholesale, TV and record executives could both make some quick dough without having to try so hard.
But at Sportsmen’s Tavern on Friday night, one of those ostensibly fake band members, Peter Tork, played chords and melodies that made all of that context irrelevant – songs that still aim straight for our hearts almost 50 years after they were written.
The 71-year-old multi-instrumentalist was the mop-toppiest Monkee, playing a character whose innocence and charm made him the Ringo to Davy Jones’s Paul. In real life, Tork is a soft-spoken, sarcastic troubadour-type; his solo acoustic set was soaked in his deep affection for old folk songs and the blues.
If you were looking for a taut run-through of Monkees hits, you would’ve been disappointed. This was a multimedia storytelling event as much as it was a concert. As Tork told us stories of listening to Burl Ives with his parents, struggling as a wet-behind-the-ears Greenwich Village folkie, and following his friend Stephen Stills’ suggestion that he attend a casting call for the show that would become The Monkees, corresponding photographs appeared on the screen above him.
It was a gold mine for any serious Monkees fan, if perhaps a little slow for somebody who just wanted to show up and sing along. Admittedly, the best moments usually involved Tork getting down to business. A snippet of the lovely folk song “The Fox” made me wish he had done the whole thing. Bluesy renditions of pop hits “Last Train to Clarksville” and “She Hangs Out” exposed their soulful bones. And a banjo-and-vocal cover of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” was ragged, tender and true.
Tork’s website quotes former opening act Jimi Hendrix as saying he was the “most talented Monkee,” but Friday’s set proved that he’s talented, period. Switching between acoustic guitar, banjo and keyboards, the goateed and bespectacled artist (who looks pretty much nothing like the Tork of Monkees days these days) oozed Americana, putting just the right kind of mustard on every chord progression and bluesy lick. His voice was more workmanlike than his playing, but it was invested with an earnestness that felt right.
And it didn’t hurt that he was pretty funny. In the middle of “Higher and Higher,” Tork tried to get the crowd to clap along. A bunch of folks started clapping on one and three.
“You don’t know what clapping is, do you?” he quipped.
There, in that moment, we got a solid idea of who Peter Tork is. He’s got the friendliness and humor of a Monkee, and the world-weariness of a septuagenarian in a small Buffalo club, who just wants a proper backbeat already. You don’t normally get this level of insight from a live show, so for people still in the throes of Monkeemania, this was a very special night indeed.