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Thu, Aug. 9th, 2007, 11:43 am
Shoe Suede Blues and Greens

I've admired the Monkees for years, but I do not envy them.  Imagine building a legitimate career in the shadow of just three years' worth of success, and welcome to the Monkees' day jobs.  In fact, calling Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, and Peter Tork "the Monkees" is a misnomer, since they haven't performed together in years.  Alas, each of them have been branded for life, despite their supplemental musical pursuits, or stints on broadway, or other film and television projects; in fact, arguably, these careers were made possible in large part thanks to their Monkees work.  The dilemma is whether or not they embrace that.  When I heard that Peter Tork and his band Shoe Suede Blues were playing at the Orange County Performing Arts Pavilion in Santa Ana this month, I briefly wondered if, as a life-long Monkees fan, I should go.  After all, Peter was the first to leave the band back in '68, and despite their multiple reunion tours (most of which I've seen), I know his skills and tastes are more eclectic than the Monkees' repertoire.  Forty years later, and with a new group of musicians, would he even play any of the few songs he sang?

Who cares?  I told you, my hesitation was brief, and my commitment as a fan isn't that shallow.  I went, I saw, and, yes, Peter Tork conquered.

First of all, the new Orange County Performing Arts Pavilion is a beautiful, intimate venue.  My girlfriend was quick enough to score front row seats (my foot was literally against the stage), but any seat there would've been acceptible.  I've seen the Monkees perform together in arenas or individually in a park (last year's Micky & Coco Dolenz show, specifically), but the atmosphere of the OCAP exuded a reverence even my youthful admiration couldn't instill in a Monkee.  In short, it was unexpectedly classy -- perhaps too classy for Tork's opening act, a Monkees tribute band dubbed Pleasant Valley Sunday.  Last year, I saw another Monkees tribute band, the Missing Links, whose website claims that they're the only Monkees tribute band -- and they might as well be, based on PVS's performance.  They weren't bad, but they were remarkably bland, and whereas the Links' both looked and sounded the part (offering all four vocals and even changing from the red eight-button shirts to the group's more psychedelic season two garb midway through their act), PVS offered only the required, and often strained, Dolenz vocals with a heavy emphasis on the Jones canon.  "She" and "Cuddly Toy" were pleasant surprises, though the latter was somewhat diminished by a cute but hapless go-go dancer.  Pleasant Valley Sunday succeeded in setting the mood but failed to capture the spirit, so I assumed that Peter would make up the difference.

As his band's name implies, Shoe Suede Blues is also a tribute band of sorts, dipping into America's blues catalog, not to mention Tork's influences as a musician, and even a hardcore pop music fan (yes, those with a penchant for Monkees music) couldn't stop their foot from tapping under SSB's melodic influence.  I won't pretend to know the songs they performed, only to say that I specifically enjoyed a song with a line in its chorus, "It's not your fault I have the blues," or something like that.  Tork's deep voice is more compatible with these low, soulful tones more than anything from the Monkees' canon, including his "Long Titile: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again" from the Head soundtrack.  In fact, forty years after Peter first sang that song, he answered its question . . . and obligingly sang "Your Auntie Grizelda" to much of the audience's delight, myself included.  While not my favorite song, "Grizelda" was Tork's first and most notable solo vocal performance in all of the Monkees' discography, so to hear him sing it live was particularly rewarding.  Shoe Suede Blues' reinterpretation of "Last Train to Clarksville" was also surprisingly territorial, and appropriately followed by Peter's keyboard heavy "Daydream Believer," with an audience sing-along that undoubtedly rivaled the band's earliest crowds, if not in quantity, then definitely in heartfelt quality.  The fact that SSB's newest album only boasts "Clarksville" and "For Pete's Sake" (originally sung by Micky during the TV show's closing credits) proves that these other two songs were truly treats exclusively for the Pavillion audience.

Peter wasn't without his usual flubs, though, often claiming that he'd lost control of the show from the first few minutes of their performance.  I guess his monitor wasn't detecting his lead vocals, which threw off the quality of the first song entirely.  Also, in my opinion (and I'm no musician or sound technician), Shoe Suede Blues' lead guitarist was just a little louder than Tork's strings, so when they "threw" from one to the other it sounded a little unbalanced.  Still, the passion for their music was the driving force behind their performance, and by the end of the concert such appreciation was infectious.  I've actually been saving Shoe Suede Blues' album for a more meaningful listening experience, but I'm confident that those tracks will take me back to that night -- the night Peter Tork took a daydream and made it a reality.

Tork was kind enough to sign memorabilia after the show, and I was one of the first fans in line.  Just like my brief moments with Micky some months back, I didn't know what to say, other than, "Could you please sign my albums?" and "Meeting you is a real honor."  How do you articulate a lifetime's worth of admiration?  How could you tell anyone that their music helped shape your worldview (listen to "Shades of Gray," "Daily Nightly," and "Zor & Zam," you naysayers!) and literally beckons to a more pure time in your life?  (In my case, that time was spent cross-legged in front of my record player in my old Stratford, Connecticut play room, rocking back and forth to those old Rhino re-releases, making up the words to songs like "Little Girl" when I couldn't understand the lyrics.)  What's worse, how can anyone, like Peter Tork, accept that kind of responsibility when they have their own lives and legacies to worry about?  No, I do not envy the Monkees.  But I still cannot wait to meet them all.