Peter Tork took to the stage at Bay City’s State Theatre shortly after 8pm and proceeded to give the audience a rousing performance that was bluesy, jazzed up and geared to rock the roof down. Tork was in fine form - slender, energetic and in good voice. This old blues engine was firing on all cylinders with Tork serving as a musicologist teaching his class about where all this great music came from. It was like John Hammond bringing in Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and boogie-woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis @ the Spirituals to Swing concert @ Carnegie Hall in 1938, but playing Robert Johnson records first.
Tork oozed the blues. He was animated, funny, energetic, and in good humor - crackin’ jokes and straight-faced goofin’. Peter’s energy was infectious and the audience was a sea of smiles playing off the good vibes of Tork and his band
Their version of Saved by the Blues was tight as a vice with Tork singing his ass off and the band chiming in with some tasty harmonies and excellent energy. Albert King’s 1966 version of the bawdy/naughty Cross Cut Saw became an essential feature in the modern blues pantheon; and Tork was able to recreate it with great facility, flattening and gradually bending the notes (minor 3rd to major 3rd). Peter’s lead guitar work on this tune was understated and exceptional. He plays big fat notes, opting for tone instead of speed and shared a solid interplay with fellow guitarist Joe Boyle. A bit of feedback at the beginning prompted Peter to make a John Cage reference. Some of the crowd caught it. Great spontaneity – don’t worry, be happy.
The next song I’m a Believer was a mega-hit for The Monkees because it’s a great pop song. Peter takes the lead vocals (it was originally a Mickey Dolenz tour-de-force) and makes it his own. The arrangement is faithful to the original. Tork is on the keys and the rhythm section lays out perfect time with just the right space.
The following tune is a boogie-woogie masterpiece written by Frankie Ford and Huey “Piano” Smith. Tork is in good voice and the band is rocking hard – a great version of an old chestnut. The high energy level of the performance keeps this song on course.
Later in the show Tork begins a rap about Louis Jordan, understanding the blues and the existential meaninglessness of everything; the crowd seemed puzzled, but when the band unleashed Jordan’s Slender, Tender and Tall, they got the message – big time. Tork became a musical historian who is willing to stick his neck out and go back in time and unleash a catalog of Americana that still exists in small pockets across the globe. Tork understands – deeply - the intellectual and sensuous appeal of those ancient rhythms - whether its blues, country jazz or be-bop, boogie and jive. It informs his craft and results in a performance that is simply spectacular in its scope and range. His rousing version of Hoochie Coochie Man is a tribute to a song that helped usher in a new kind of music. It brought us to the beginning, the very genesis of rock & roll.
At this point in the show the bass player Arnold Jacks starts to goof with Peter, calling him a” funky little white boy” - a loving compliment to the leader of the band. This segued nicely to a faithful version of the Monkees standard A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. Peter sings lead - though it was a vehicle for the late and great Davy Jones. Peter’s piano trill on the bridge is simply scrumptious.
The band stomps back with a rockin’ boogie woogie masterpiece Wine/Texas Barbecue, a variation of Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee written by Sticks McGhee, with a little help from his brother Brownie McGhee…just to clean it up a bit. Joe Boyle hits it outta the park with his exceptional full bodied guitar work.
The next song Molecular Structure is a great song from the Mose Allison Archives. It is a brief soiree on sexual politics and has a form of kidding on the square underneath the lyrical playfulness. Mose played my club and I loved him dearly. We were all snapping photos of him as he played when he suddenly stopped, looked me right in the in the eye and said quietly, “I’m not a model so stop taking pictures.” Anyway, Tork did this brief ditty some moral justice, great version!
The first huge Monkees hit, Last Train to Clarksville was re-imagined as a slowed down 12 bar blues. Nice. Clarksville was one of the best anti-war anthems ever written in a pop format. It was released in 1966. Take a closer listen.
Tork fashions some tasty slide guitar on an obscure bossa nova tune. It has some delicious jazz notations that are irresistible. The next song is another obscurity in which the protagonist learns about love the hard way. The lyrics tell the story: She’s too hot to handle for a country boy like me / She’s a crash course in the blues.
At this juncture Tork rolls out another great Monkees hit, Pleasant Valley Sunday. At the time it was a courageous effort that revealed the bands emerging social consciousness. The song is an incredible statement about the false promises of consumer culture and bourgeois pretensions. Plus it had a good beat and hooks galore. I believe its boldness was underappreciated back in 1967.
Play with your Poodle is a Tampa Red song from the forties. It’s salacious blues at its metaphoric best. The title tells the story. Tork and his band are in a groove at this point. The slow blues format is a perfect backdrop for some tasty guitar licks. Tork & Boyle are up for the challenge. They play some sweet licks with tonal perfection. They are so good it reminds me of Junior Watson’s guitar work with the Mighty Flyers, Canned Heat and as a solo artist. Boyle even looks like Junior Watson. After a spectacular jam with Boyle and Tork trading off fat bodied licks like ringing a bell, Tork turns to the audience and exclaims, “The blues are not funny”!!!!
Tork shifted to another great Monkees song, Daydream Believer complete with the piano riff he created for the song. It was Davy Jones in his finest hour. The song, written by John Stewart, was a wistful remembrance of young love. There is a hint of longing and regret. They don’t have much money and they are struggling but the chorus is upbeat and provides a sense of hope. It seemed to be Tork’s bittersweet tribute to his dear friend. Peter led a sing-a-long with just him, the piano and the audience that was very touching.
Tork follows with Sometimes Even White Boys Get the Blues. It is a sorrowful tale of the down and out blues of the bourgeoisie. It recounts the protagonist’s woes in chilling detail e.g., getting arrested for drunk driving, flunking out of Harvard, divorcing his wife in order to pay the mortgage etc etc etc - whew, a nightmare indeed. I can barely breathe. Oh, the horror.
The show ended with the old blues warhorse I Got My Mojo Working. I first heard it played by British Invasion stars Manfred Mann in 1964. It is written by Preston Foster and made famous by Muddy Waters. Tork uses a different arrangement that incorporates a shuffle beat and some delicate and tasty slide guitar. Tork sings from his center and the band provides a stellar sepia-toned backdrop that gives the song additional warmth and energy.
The show ended on a high note and the audience gave Peter and his band a well-deserved standing ovation. It was a great show.
Peter Tork: Scenes From A Lifescape
It’s been quite a ride for Peter from leading the charge in those halcyon days in Laurel Canyon. He was friends with future superstars such as Steven Stills, Van Dyke Parks, and Neil Young. They were just kids on the move and nobody thought of fame and fortune as much as making music and pursuing alternatives to the life and values of their parents.
It was a time of free love and experimentation. The Hippie movement was created in Laurel Canyon and Peter was the guru. Tork was the first to make it big when he landed a role on the new television sitcom entitled The Monkees. The show was a mixed blessing for Peter and he would carry the ambivalence from it for the rest of his life.
As his gig at the State Theatre proved, Peter is looking back in time. He finds that he is always looking back even as he is coaxing out a plan for the future; when all he really wants is to be in the moment.
This is his vision quest. He is becoming more reflexively aware and understands the pointlessness of figuring things out. Theories and dogmas now sound empty. There are times he wonders how much time he has left. He knows it’s the end of his capacity to reproduce and the beginning of thinking about life’s end.
Though he doesn’t trust easily he is more connected to others and less alienated. Peter feels a tension between a universal consciousness and being an animal and has a sense of “I don’t know who I am.” Sometimes he despairs about his need to fill the shoes he wears and walks in the shadows of his spiritual longing.
The mundane is a comfort especially when he grouses about his own limitations, “I don’t like my voice. I can’t keep pitch.”
In truth, Peter is beginning to let go and find his awakened self.