"Have we got any Monkees fans out there?" Micky Dolenz asked early in the band's performance Thursday in Washington. There came the inevitable cheers.
Dolenz responded with a threat: "We'll fix that!"
But try as they might, the group couldn't shake the goodwill of the multi-generational crowd that turned out for the 50th anniversary show at the Warner Theater. Not that they tried very hard.
In 2016, a Monkees show is something more than a concert. A giant screen atop the stage shows home movies, clips from the 1960s television show, psychedelic images from the film "Head," footage from the group's 1980s revival, even commercials the group did for Rice Krispies, Kool-Aid and Black Label cologne. A crack five-piece band cranks out hit after sunshine/garage/bubblegum/pop hit. The Monkees themselves crack wise as they share stories of life in the original manufactured boy band.
It's a guided tour back in time, both for those who were there the first time and the many who weren't.
The guides on Thursday were Dolenz and Peter Tork. Davy Jones died in 2012; Mike Nesmith, who's working on a book, says he'll rejoin his bandmates eventually, perhaps this winter.
In the meantime, the group is trying to make it a Monkee summer. Good Times!, their first album of new material in 20 years – and their best since the 1960s – came out Friday. With music by the band's original songwriting stable and some high-profile fans of today, fresh contributions from Dolenz, Nesmith and Tork and an unreleased song by Jones, it has cracked Amazon's Top Five in Music, right between Beyonce and Prince. Their theater tour, which began this month in Florida, continues through October.
The group primed the arriving audience Thursday with clips of songs they wouldn't be playing. Then the lights dimmed, the screen showed the opening title to the television show, and the familiar three-stroke roll launched the theme song: "Here we come …"
The live music got off to a raggedy start, as Dolenz and Tork launched a tentative "Listen to the Band" on guitars. But then the rest of the group kicked in, bringing the song to full Technicolor life. Than came "Last Train to Clarksville," the first Monkees hit, in all of its jangly glory.
There was an irony in the live performance. Fifty years ago, the Monkees – cast primarily as actors, not musicians – were dismissed by some for not playing the instruments on their earliest records (they always sang). But Dolenz knows what he's doing on guitars and drums, and Tork is – always was – a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist, who alternated among acoustic and electric guitars, banjo and keyboards. The arpeggios on "Last Train to Clarksville" – actually banjo rolls, executed on an electric guitar – were particularly sparkly.
And so it continued, through more than two hours of music. Live, the band rocks a bit harder than the records. "She," "Porpoise Song" and "Randy Scouse Git" had a nice psychedelic throb; the already remarkable "Goin' Down" became an R&B powerhouse.
Also entertaining were the oddball choices. Dolenz sang Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," the song he says got him the Monkees gig. Tork reimagined Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" on banjo; he said he was aiming for a combination of Motown and Appalachia; the result mixed bluegrass with Gospel.
They also performed the obscurity "Steam Engine," which featured in the 1960s television show, but wouldn't appear on record for another decade, and the MTV-era hit "That Was Then, This Is Now," which sounded grittier than the 1980s original.
"She Makes Me Laugh," the first single from Good Times!, and the only new song they played, fit right in with the older material. Written by Weezer mastermind Rivers Cuomo, it's one of several tracks composed in the Monkees style by contemporary songwriters for the new album.
All four Monkees sang hits; cutting Jones and Nesmith songs from the setlist would have left glaring omissions. Still, it was odd to hear Dolenz and Tork take over from Jones on "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You" or Nesmith on "What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round?"
The missing bandmates' presence was felt throughout, in the clips onscreen, in stories told by Dolenz and Tork, and in the songs they once sang.
The most affecting moment of the evening came during "Shades of Gray." The band played around an isolated vocal track by Jones as the screen showed a montage of the late Monkee. Tork joined in for the second verse, as he did on the 1967 record. Dolenz turned around, his back to the audience, just to watch.
Listen to the Band
Last Train to Clarksville
That Was Then, This Is Now
Your Auntie Grizelda
She Makes Me Laugh
A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
The Girl I Knew Somewhere
Shades of Gray
Randy Scouse Git
For Pete's Sake
Johnny B. Goode
(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher
Let's Dance On
Porpoise Song (Theme From "Head")
Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?
(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone
Papa Gene's Blues
What Am I Doing Hangin' 'Round?
Pleasant Valley Sunday
I'm a Believer