Michael Nesmith always traveled to the beat of a different drum. While serving as one-fourth of The Monkees, Nesmith was expanding his musical horizons beyond the group’s infectious Brill Building pop stylings. “I wanted beautiful music wherever I could find it,” he writes in the liner notes to his new release on 7a Records. “But if I wanted to sing it myself and write it myself, I had to have an understanding of what that music was, and how to get to it. So, the first place I looked was in my own history, which was hillbilly country. And then I started looking at the other kind of influences…’Where am I gonna find the stuff that I really love?’ And as I’ve written in my book, where I found it was in Bo Diddley – his rhythms – and where I found it was in the blues and not so much in pure country music except as it was rendered by guys like Hank Williams, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, and so forth.”
Nesmith distilled the essence of his disparate influences into the music he created with his First National Band in 1970 and 1971. It was country-rock from an outlaw pop star, and while it didn’t make much of a commercial splash, its reputation and stature have only grown in the ensuing years. In early 2018, Nesmith re-formed a new First National Band for a series of five shows including one on January 25 at Los Angeles’ famed Troubadour. That sold-out show has come to CD and LP on a vibrant new live recording, Michael Nesmith and The First National Band Redux: Live at The Troubadour.
At The Troubadour, Nesmith revisited all three of The First National Band’s RCA albums with a new band consisting of Christopher Allis (drums/percussion/vocals), Jason Chesney (bass), Jim Cox (keyboards), Pete Finney (pedal steel), Jonathan Nesmith (guitar/vocals), Christian Nesmith (guitar/vocals), Circe Link (vocals/percussion), and Amy Spear (vocals/percussion). (The original band’s pedal steel guitarist O.J. “Red” Rhodes and bassist John London had died, and drummer John Ware had retired.) The connection between the group and the audience at the intimate club is palpable on 7a’s recording, produced and mixed by Christian Nesmith, from the first strains of the rousing opening song, “Nevada Fighter,” onward.
A number of the songs here were written and/or recorded during Nesmith’s time with The Monkees. The country samba hybrid of “Calico Girlfriend” (with Circe Link and Amy Spear’s delicious background vocals adding to its enormous flavor) can’t help but beguile; “Nine Times Blue” is an example of the artist’s craft as a songwriter with its blend of folk and country styles. (As on the original FNB’s 1970 debut Magnetic South, “Nine Times Blue” segues into the rhythmic “Little Red Rider.”)
The monologue “50 Years Ago” features a charming, avuncular Nesmith introducing stripped-down, solo acoustic versions of three of the most famous songs here: “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care),” “Different Drum” (which practically invites the audience to sing along), and “Papa Gene’s Blues” (on which they do sing along!).
The ruminative “The Crippled Lion” goes a long way in encapsulating the FNB style: it’s not quite country, not quite pop, not quite folk, not quite rock, but deftly incorporates them all with a dash of psychedelic spirit. It’s clear throughout the concert that Nesmith’s burnished, expressive tone has hardly dulled over the years, and he’s clearly inspired by the combination of songs and musicians here. Harmonies enliven the performance of the FNB’s most successful chart single, the wistful “Joanne,” as well as the twangy, laconic ballad “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” while the band strikes a tough, greasy blues groove on the tale of “Grand Ennui.” Trippy pedal steel opens “Lady of the Valley,” one of many tracks here showcasing the muscularity of this iteration of the group. “Tengo Amore,” like “Calico Girlfriend,” is hot Latin country, with an irresistibly cooking groove, and “Mama Nantucket” is bright, sprightly country-rock of the first order.
Michael Nesmith sounds creatively refreshed on Live at the Troubadour, backed by a crack band of family and friends, and basking in the attention being deservedly heaped upon some of his most underrated songs. Happily, he’s recovered from the quadruple bypass heart surgery that brought his joint tour with Micky Dolenz to an early end (the pair is scheduled to make up the lost dates next year), and on September 7, he will reconvene The First National Band Redux for a new 12-city tour. Based on the evidence here, audience members will be in for a rip-roaring good time. Live at the Troubadour is available on CD (handsomely packaged in an embossed digipak with a 16-page color booklet) as well as on LP with one additional track, his 1977 epic “Rio.” (One wishes that “Rio” would be made available to purchasers of the CD in digital format, at least.) In any format, however, this crackling release is sure to excite. Listen to the band!