Saturday, November 28, 2009

21st Century Ray

I went through a major Kinks phase in the first half of the 1980's. Then, as now, I binged on records, but in my youth I didn't have much money, so the binge would take a while to accomplish. (Maybe that's not a binge then). Though I don't have every Kinks album, I did pretty well. I can still recall getting a double record set with the exotic British spelling called The Compleat Collection. Had to have that - it had "Sittin' On My Sofa," which The Fleshtones used to cover.

Yet, much to my amazement, then and now, I never saw The Kinks in concert. Oh, there were plenty of opportunities; they were always around. I just never got around to it. Even in the early '90's, when Ray Davies was touring around his autobiography X-Ray, I didn't go see him. Considering he played a week at The Royal George Theater in Chicago, that's more than not getting around to it. It seems a conscious effort to avoid all things Kinky.
Well, cross ol' Ray off the concert list. Me and the boys went to The Egg in Albany last Monday to see the great one. Why was he in Albany? It's hard to fathom. He's conducting a short tour with a chorus, and hitting only big cities. Albany? It must've been a mistake, but one we were glad to capitalize on.

The Kinks catalogue is rich beyond belief, and Davies dipped in for big hits and lost chestnuts. The first half of the show had Ray seated alongside guitarist Bill Shanley, and they opened with "I Need You," which I have on some cheapo compilation called Golden Hour, Vol. 2. An odd choice, to be sure. Ray asked the crowd, "Who's an individual?" Now, I know that old Steve Martin joke about The Non-Conformist's Oath, so I didn't join the masses in applauding their unique qualities while part of a mob. It was the prologue to a rousing version of "I'm Not Like Everybody Else." Soon after beginning "Where Have All the Good Times Gone," some exuberant fan belted out a line, to which Ray quipped, "He was here last night, and we weren't even playing." This kind of humorous repartee was in evidence all night long. We enjoyed him and he genuinely seemed to relish the crowd's love. At one point, he jauntily introduced "an Old English folk tune." As Ray strummed an ancient melody, to an unresponsive crowd, he wondered aloud, "Is it that bad?" With that, he segued into "A Dedicated Follower of Fashion." Oh yes he did!

The show was peppered with crowd participation. Ray loves a sing-song, and the audience happily obliged. One forgets how many hits the Kinks had. They were so overshadowed by The Beatles, The Stones and, let's face it, lots of others, yet they were huge and massively influential. "A Well-Respected Man," "Days," "Waterloo Sunset," "Come Dancing," Better Things," - monster songs that stretched over two decades. The crowd knew the words, I can assure you.

I happily sang along, and was relieved when he skipped the part in "Come Dancing" about the palais being torn down. That always makes me cry. "Come Dancing" is a remarkable example of how great a songwriter Ray Davies is. A smash hit, it is a deep take on nostalgia, lost youth and dashed dreams, disguised as a light hearted pop tune. A remarkable song if you think about it (which I did).

It's hard to fathom that Ray's solo career began only a few years ago with Other People's Lives, but it's true. That 2006 effort, followed by Working Man's Cafe, were well represented by a band that was so loud that I saw some cracks in The Egg. Davies has lost little since his heyday. The solo records are wonderfully catchy, brutally insightful, and a joy to hear.

The encore was thankfully long. Davies told us the story of sitting at the family piano in Muswell Hill, looking to write his first hit song. As he plunked out a few notes, his brother Dave came in from the kitchen and asked what he was playing. The sparse notes would grow into the legendary riff that was Dave's intro to "You Really Got Me." Ray joked about Dave all night, wearing a clear love-hate relationship with his former bandmate and brother on his sleeve. "20th Century Man" nearly blew the roof off the house, if the cockeyed oval that is The Egg has a clear roof line. I can't tell.

When Ray stood for the second half of the show, the full band set, I was shocked at how strikingly tall he was. He's also incredibly springy, leaping around the stage in an un-65 year old way. From where we sat, it was clear that the only real difference between Ray Davies today, and Ray Davies of 1980, is his receding hairline. Except for that, I felt that I'd finally caught up with one of my faves, still in his prime. I won't miss him again.

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