L to R: Susie Davis, Rebeca Mauleón, Michael Nesmith, Gary Brown, Jimmy Branly, Jesus Dias
(photo c/o Rebeca Mauleón)
A pleasantly cool breeze passes through the crowd that has started to accumulate along the grassy hill, as the sun shines down brightly through a cluster of light clouds. Somewhere off in the distance, birds are chirping cheerfully, almost sensing the events that are about to take place. A television moos. Enthusiastic whispers and murmurs can be heard as the air buzzes with energy; the excitement is palpable. Some audience members near the front float upwards and fly down to obtain a clearer view, while others step back to grab a cushion on the terraced seating. This place is not imaginary, but rather… virtual. Videoranch3D, the brain child of modern Renaissance man and musician Michael Nesmith, is an online resort, where people can log on from all over the world and tune into live concerts, as well as movies and music, all of which are streamed in through virtual venues, in real time. Each person is represented through a small animated character, or an “avatar”, and is fully capable of moving around this scenic digital world in many ways, including teleportation, and yes… flying. The ranch features a variety of interesting destinations, including a corral full of floating televisions, all programmed to play various clips from Michael Nesmith’s video comedy specials. Though it may sound like something out of Star Trek or Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, Videoranch3D is very much alive, and seems to be the crest along the wave of future technology.
Showtime is approaching, and the crowd is now growing rapidly, along with the bubbling anticipation surrounding tonight’s show. It is May twenty-fifth, 2009, the last of a four-day long music festival, appropriately titled "MusicRise", and Nesmith, or “Nez” as he is known to regulars in the Ranch, is about to take the stage for a complete set, for the first time in over ten years. Just a taste of Nez’s live performance was offered last year at the Monterey Jazz Festival (and again in Videoranch3D) when he performed his song “Laugh Kills Lonesome” with Rebeca Mauleón’s Latin jazz quartet. After a warm reception to this short but intimate performance, Nez has decided to perform yet again with Rebeca and her band… this time for over an hour. Before the thrill has any time to wear off, the deep but fervent voice of Jimmy Jackson, the emcee for the evening, rings out with a pre-show countdown. “We are three minutes to show time, folks… three minutes to show time.” This historical concert will also be simulcast through local California-based station, KPIG, ensuring that the Nez fans without ranch access will also be able to enjoy the show, even if it has to be without video.
Jimmy returns on the intercom to complete the countdown in traditional NASA style, ending punctually at 7 PM before striding out onto the stage in a pair of dark plaid pants; attire that he is well-known for sporting amongst his faithful ranch followers. A short, sweet introduction paves the way for the man we have all come to see, who leads his musical entourage out onto the stage, quiet but confident. The computer generated applause might as well be the real thing; it’s enough to simulate the crowd of over a thousand that has built up. Meanwhile, the chat window becomes a blur as the word “CLAP” flies by, countless times. Not a single note has been played and already the heartfelt joy is apparent. Without any pause, he dives right into his set, starting out with a tune entitled “Zip Ribbon”, which allows Nez to showcase a few artfully effortless solos on his electric guitar. The man seems so at ease and comfortable in front of his virtual audience, and he lets us all know as the set progresses, blending seamlessly into his next song… “Cruisin’”.
It seems like Nez is eager to demonstrate his unwavering vocals and powerful musical stamina early on, and he does so with great gusto, belting the end of the song to his full capability. (However, the best is yet to come.) Keeping with the theme of elegant simplicity, he finally pauses to greet us all with a simple but excited “Hey!”, proceeding to welcome us all fondly and then introduce his band for the evening. This phenomenal band consists of Rebeca Mauleón on electric piano, Gary Brown on bass, Jimmy Branly on drums, Jesus Diaz on congas and Susie Davis doubling on keyboards and accordion, Nez’s self-proclaimed “dream instrument”. For a brief but beautiful moment, he allows his true feelings to show in a short sentiment; “This is the band, enjoy this. This is the best I ever had.” More applause, and then it's straight into an accordion-sweetened version of “Different Drum” which segues perfectly into “Joanne”, followed by “Some Of Shelley’s Blues”. By the next break, it would appear he’d been informed of how massive his audience had grown, muttering almost sheepishly; “Hi… wow.”
Nez proves that he can still tug at your funny bone or your heart strings, using his unique sense of humor in between classic songs of his, which still seem to hold the timeless appeal they always have. During the first KPIG commercial break, he uses the opportunity to take shots at Jimmy Jackson’s outfit, answering the question on everyone’s mind in a way that only he can. When asked why he had been out of the performing circuit for so long, Nez replied simply; “I needed to get some sleep,” though he was quick to add that he “feels great, now.” And it shows, a smile ever-present on his face, the glow radiating from him even through a small computer monitor. But it’s on with the show before we’re allowed to get too sentimental, and he adjusts his guitar poignantly before sliding right into “Tomorrow And Me”, another classic tune that is seasoned perfectly with a new modern spice.
Onward and upward, the band continues into what has become their calling card hit since last year, “Laugh Kills Lonesome”, and Nesmith seems to hook his audience with ease, wavering between talking and melodic singing. And, is that a brass band hidden somewhere off-camera? No, it is merely Rebeca Mauleón’s incredible keyboard skills, providing a steady samba beat behind Nez’s cheerful vocals. Jesus and Rebeca both shine brilliantly with such mind-blowing solos, that a mere chain of typed claps just don’t seem to cut it, but for now it will have to do. “Laugh kills lonesome, every single time,” he says… and you can’t help but agree and clap your hands along at home. For having fans all over the world joined together all at once, he certainly makes this an interactive experience.
From here, the concert takes a mysterious turn towards a glistening forgotten shore, Nez’s voice ringing out clear and melodious on “One…For The Island”. The acoustics work wonders in painting a clear visual as Nez narrates, “one for the island, one world shining in the sun,” and you start to wonder if perhaps the ranch is this magical place he sings about. You can almost hear the air drifting through palm leaves, the ocean lapping rhythmically at the shore, ethereal keyboards carrying you through the sky. The end of the song seems to snap you back into reality… or maybe that’s the familiar riff Nez breaks into to wordlessly introduce the next song… “Listen To The Band”. But it isn’t what you’d expect, the classic tune has been jazzed up with a funky ska beat, and the delight is ridiculously contagious at this point.
Finally, a song to showcase each talented artist behind the man himself, each band member taking a free-wheeling solo (or two), with Nez laughing along, exclaiming; “Wasn’t that good? That made me happy!” between lines, and once again, he makes it nearly impossible to disagree. The song ends with another Latin flourish, the congas and piano adding a very natural twist to what has become a “Nesmith standard”. Before you have time to guess what’s coming next, it’s time for another KPIG break, and this time Nez jokes about being “up here among the ashes of the Boxmasters”, Billy Bob Thornton’s rockabilly band who closed out the previous evening to yet another “roaring” crowd. And, through the rolling applause, Nez’s guitar is heard again, starting him off into a charming island rendition of “Silver Moon”, sprinkled with just enough marimba and more congas to make you look up and double check that the moon hasn’t slipped into your room, if only just for the moment. Keeping with the ambient feel, he slides right into “Rays”, the title song from his 2006 album release, progressing with another seamless transition into “Yellow Butterfly”. This song, which already seemed to have a delightful jazzy feel, is only further enhanced by the now-present accordion, Susie Davis coaxing beautiful melodies from the instrument with ease. A glowing silver moon, shining rays, and a yellow butterfly floating by… the set list appears to be carefully thought out, and in case there is any doubt, Nez continues with “Rio”, closing out the tune by inviting us all to “fly down to Rio tonight!” Where do I purchase my ticket? I suppose I could just use this music for flight.
But, sadly, all good things must end, and after this song Nez bids us all goodnight, holding both arms up to wave at his adoring crowd and making his true feelings known once more; “What a treat, to see you,” he says quietly. The feeling is mutual, Nez. Some people in the chat have been crying for the full set, which stretched just over an hour. Others have no doubt been too ensconced in the performance to say anything at all. Even those people who weren’t able to view the show could at least hear it by listening online to the KPIG radio stream, which was simulcasting the concert. Nez obviously wanted the music to be heard, and he succeeded brilliantly, his triumph clear in the hundreds of smiling faces you can almost see.
What we have just witnessed was a real concert. It was real people, performing in real time, playing real instruments and using their real voices. What makes this different from any other concert experience is the virtual aspect; Nez and the band are still able to see their audience on a large hanging screen, the magnitude of it undoubtedly surprising, even to them. And it was fairly obvious that they all enjoyed themselves immensely, their wide smiling faces visible in beautiful high-resolution technology. The Videoranch crew went all out to surprise and amaze us this time, and the fans couldn’t be more grateful, even if they were in the green room themselves.
So, after going nearly twenty years without performing a full set in front of a live audience, Michael Nesmith proved to us all that he can still pack a powerful punch, alternating between belting and crooning, using his voice and lyrics to tell the stories, his band illustrating them with fantastic musical pictures. By the end of the show, you feel you have transcended a normal concert experience; as if you’ve just returned from a tropical journey. Perhaps part of this is the individuality of this technology; hundreds of people are able to enjoy several full concerts, for free, in the privacy of their own home. To make this even more special, the icing on the festival cake is Nez himself, closing out this modern-day Woodstock with a night that won’t soon be forgotten by anyone in attendance (and even some who weren’t). As the set breaks down and the camera feed finally cuts out, things are startlingly back to normal. The digital wind rustles through the virtual trees, while a sunglass-sporting pig waddles away behind you, and you tilt your head back to look up into the watercolor sky, breathing a sigh of gratitude to the people who’ve made this all possible. It is not a reality, it is better. It is people coming together through music and shared experiences. It is love that is visible through text alone. It is life, and beauty, and far more than “just a concert”. It is Videoranch3D.
Visit http://www.videoranch.com for more information, or http://www.videoranch3d.com to sign up and download the software.
hearing:: "One...For The Island" - Nez