pop-break visits a Pennsylvania brewpub to see a Monkee play the blues …
Words by Brent Johnson | Photos by Veronica Slaght
The famous riff sounded foreign at first.
Peter Tork slid his left hand down the neck of his red Stratocaster guitar, plucking the notes in a slower, slinkier fashion than he used to. It took a few seconds for the small crowd to recognize the song Sunday night at Triumph Brewery in New Hope, Pa. But once they did, out came a chorus of whistles and woos.
“Take the last train to Clarksville,” the Monkees guitarist sang.
It was the No. 1 single that launched Tork’s former group onto the pop charts 45 years ago. But gone were the sunny harmonies and sparkling 12-string arpeggios. Instead, Tork and his new band, Shoe Suede Blues, transformed “Last Train To Clarksville” into a grinding groove.
Tork will probably play a more faithful rendition when The Monkees reunite this summer for a much-anticipated international tour. He, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones open U.S. dates in June. (The only member missing is guitarist Mike Nesmith.)
“That group I used to be a member of … I’m going to be a member of again,” Tork joked with the audience at Triumph on Sunday.
Not everyone can score a ticket to the reunion, though. And on nights like this one in New Hope, Tork offers an alternative: a different kind of music in a more intimate setting.
Tork was never the most famous Monkee, largely because he never sang lead much. But he was one of the musical anchors in a band unfairly chided for being slight — playing not only guitar, but bass, banjo and colorful keyboard parts.
He’s 69 now, a survivor of head and neck cancer. His trademark hair is still blond, if a little thinner. And the music might not be what you’d expect from a Monkee. As the name of his new band attests, Tork has made a living for years playing blues songs in small venues across the country.
Sunday, it was Triumph, a popular, modern-looking microbrewery off the Delaware River that usually hosts local bands and open mic nights. Among the 100 or so audience members, many were baby boomers reliving their record collection. Others were probably twentysomething bar-goers who knew the songs but didn’t know a ’60s pop star was singing them. But Tork — decked in a black button-down shirt, black jeans, purple tie and red sneakers — did more than churn out Monkees covers with his Shoe Suede bandmates. There were original 12-bar numbers, a Taj Mahal cover, early rock ‘n’ roll.
“If you like this song as much as we do, the evening is guaranteed to be a success. If not, it’ll be over in a couple minutes,” Tork quipped before the band ripped into the boogie-woogie standard ‘Sea Cruise.’
He still flashes the humor that made The Monkees television stars in 1966. He also goes far to dispel a major myth: that The Monkees weren’t really musicians. Critics gave them guff for being a made-for-TV band, cobbled together from casting calls, and only providing vocals for their first two albums. But eventually, the band started playing their own instruments and producing their own music.
With Shoe Suede, Tork tackles smoky guitar solos and Fats Domino-style piano. And because he rarely sang lead on Monkees singles, Tork says he has the freedom to re-imagine the music. Like the bluesy take on ‘Last Train’ and the punky rendition of ‘(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone’ that closed Sunday’s set. Tork’s other Monkee covers mostly stay true to the recordings: ‘I’m A Believer,’ ‘A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,’ and ‘Daydream Believer.’
The last number was the evening’s highlight. The crowd sang along on the chorus. Some danced beneath the brewery’s giant beer tanks.
Sometimes, you never know where a star will show up.
For Monkees tour dates, click here: http://www.pollstar.com/resultsArtist.aspx?ID=84806&SortBy=Date&SearchBy=monkees
For more on Peter Tork & Shoe Suede Blues, visit their website.