Rock's original manufactured group outsold the Beatles in 1967, and filled arenas in the 1980s. Reruns of their fondly remembered television show and the run of ridiculously catchy singles that accompanied it – "Last Train to Clarksville," "I'm a Believer" and "Daydream Believer" among them – ensured a baseline level of popularity through the decades that followed.
But the death last year of Davy Jones sent the albums back to the charts and helped to speed a reconsideration of the band's catalog and its enduring influence on the power-pop that followed. It's no longer just the hits: The B-side "Goin' Down" enjoyed an iTunes revival following an appearance on "Breaking Bad," the album cut "Porpoise Song" did the same after turning up on "Mad Men." A 12-city reunion tour last fall of Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork and, for the first time since 1997, Michael Nesmith, sold out all dates.
One good tour deserving another, the trio launched its 24-date "Midsummer's Night with the Monkees" tour last week in New York, and brought the show Sunday to the Warner Theatre in Washington. Playing before a screen that showed scenes and montages from the brightly colored TV show, they tore through a well-paced, 30-song set that alternated between the hits and extended explorations of the album "Headquarters" and the soundtrack to their movie "Head" for an enthusiastic, multigenerational crowd.
Never have they sounded better, appeared more assured or been more enjoyable than right now.
The absence of Jones and the return of Nesmith makes for an edgier setlist. Gone, for the most part, is the poppier fare at which Jones excelled: "I Wanna Be Free," "(Look Out) Here Comes Tomorrow" and the like. Taking its place is the cosmic roots music pioneered by Nesmith: "You Just May Be The One," "Tapioca Tundra," "The Kind of Girl I Could Love."
The material from "Head," particularly Dolenz's transcendent reading of "Porpoise Song," and a droning take on Nesmith's "Sweet Young Thing" bathed the theater in psychedelic colors.
Backed by a crack band that included Nesmith's son Christian on guitar and Dolenz's sister Coco on vocals, the trio played the material straight, leaving the comedy to the clips of their younger selves playing onscreen behind them. An amusing exception: Nesmith singing the electronic chirps, bleeps and growls of the Moog synthesizer on "Daily Nightly."
Other highlights included Dolenz scatting through the epic "Goin' Down" and Tork infusing "Early Morning Blues and Greens" with a wistful maturity.
In between songs, Dolenz spoke of the group's friendship with the Beatles, who were fans; Nesmith introduced the off-the-cuff "No Time" as a song that changed "the entire universe;" Tork recited the comic "Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky."
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Jones remained a presence throughout, appearing on the screen and providing the emotional center of the evening: Toward the end of the show, the trio left the stage to a clip of the onetime Broadway actor singing and dancing through the vaudevillian "Daddy's Song." Then the survivors returned to invite a fan onstage to lead the crowd in Jones' signature "Daydream Believer" – a fine tribute and a fitting climax to a terrific night.
(Video: (Theme From) The Monkees) Last Train to Clarksville Papa Gene's Blues Your Auntie Grizelda The Kind of Girl I Could Love She Sweet Young Thing I'm a Believer (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone You Told Me Sunny Girlfriend You Just May Be the One Mary, Mary The Girl I Knew Somewhere Early Morning Blues and Greens Randy Scouse Git For Pete's Sake No Time Words Daily Nightly Tapioca Tundra Goin' Down Porpoise Song Can You Dig It? As We Go Along Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again? (Video: Daddy's Song) Daydream Believer What Am I Doing Hangin' Round?
Listen to the Band Peter Percival Patterson's Pet Pig Porky Pleasant Valley Sunday