Wednesday, March 22, 2006

I Won't Forget a Single Day, Believe Me

Ray Davies, 9:30 Club, Washington, DC, March 20, 2006
All photos courtesy Ines Hilde. Many thanks to her and Tom.

Ray Davies has an amazing face.

At the age of 61, his features have lost none of their elasticity; his face betrays not a hint of a wattle or jowl or decayed jawline. It's always tempting to impute such a face to the plastic surgeon's art -- a glance at his near-contemporary McCartney certainly triggers this suspicion -- but this is emphatically not the case with Davies. Onstage he exudes casual vitality, a man very comfortable in his own skin, a graceful and accomplished pro. When he delivers a funny line, the corners of his mouth turn upward and crows' feet crinkle his temples; you can imagine him having just delivered a filthy witticism to an audience of three down at the pub rather than the 3000 happy punters at the 9:30.

The moment he hit the stage and sang a cappella (spontaneously, it appeared; he motioned the band to be quiet) the opening lines of "I'm Not Like Anybody Else," we knew we were in for an emotionally nuanced night:
I won't take all that they hand me down,
And make out a smile, though I wear a frown,
And I won't take it all lying down,
'Cause once I get started I go to town.
You can be forgiven for taking those lines as a harbinger of a bitter tirade, but it's Davies' towering strength that he never delivered anger into his readings. If rock-and-roll music is about dancing on your troubles, singing happy songs about miserable things, then Ray's contribution to the art is formidable indeed. He is wistful, whimsical, rueful, nostalgic -- and his gift is to draw an audience into those emotions rather than repelling them with raw anger. When he sang "I'm a twentieth-century man/But I don't want to be here," the audience roared along, each of us feeling our own alienation down to our roots, but at once connected tightly together by this man's wonderful songs.

He balanced the show between Kinks chestnuts -- and Lord what a deep well that is! -- and songs from his new album Other Peoples' Lives. This title is a clever misdirection if there ever was one; it's a tour of Ray Davies' mind through a succession of first-person character studies. The standouts he played at the 9:30 were "Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After)" (melodically reminiscent in parts of the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" ) and the finest bleary hangover song I've ever heard, "Is There Life After Breakfast?"

His band is polished and tight. It's refreshing to hear Davies' magnificent hard-rock archetypes like "All Day and All of the Night" and "Till the End of the Day" sung by their author fronting a truly formidable performing unit: If we're being brutally honest, the Kinks, while sporting ample personality and verve, suffered from occasional sloppiness. It was particularly tasteful that Ray's lead guitarist, a very accomplished Aussie named Mark Johns, didn't replicate Dave Davies's solo from "You Really Got Me," which I think of as the great awful guitar solo of rock's early years -- all swagger and no musicality. (It's very hard to play an interesting solo over a repeated two-chord riff that never goes anywhere harmonically, but Dave's attempt just...sort of...peters out. A much better one is "All Day and All of the Night," where he finally gets to resolve the damned thing.)

Ray onstage was a bouncy, funny, herky-jerky collection of knees and elbows. I wonder now if Elvis Costello picked up any of his early onstage physicality -- knocked knees, wobbly ankles, the crabwise slide to the side -- from watching him. Considering that Davies was shot in the leg in New Orleans just over a year ago, he's in remarkably fine physical shape, and was as effervescent at the end of the energetic two-hour-plus show as at the beginning. And nobody juggles a flatpick or sprays a shaken beer with more gusto.

The audience, as might be expected, skewed middle-aged -- Ray, after all, sings songs for grownups -- but there was a wonderful energy in the hall. A very sweet kid stood near us, thirteen years old, he confided during the intermission as with quiet pride he enumerated the impressive number of concerts he'd been to in the past few years. As Ray bounded down the front row after the last encore ("Lola," unsurprisingly), shaking hands with us moshers, he let the kid take the guitar pick from his hand. The youngster, mad with elation, turned around and held the precious artifact overhead, showing it to someone behind us. "Dad!" he yelled ecstatically, his pubescent voice cracking, "I got a pick!" I'm sure it will be a treasured family heirloom.

This happened not long after Ray sang a truly transcendent version of "Days" -- that wonderful, humane, great-hearted song -- and I happily admit I teared up pretty good. I'm resolving that I won't go to any more of these shows without dragging my own Freddie along -- he who quietly assays "Smoke on the Water" on his classical guitar -- who's old enough to stay out late on the occasional school night getting a real education.

My companions for the evening were frequent Jingo commenter Xtcfan, who knew more lyrics than I did, and Helmut of Phronesisiacal and his stunning wife Ines, both of whom I was meeting for the first time and who turned out to be very charming and gentle people. Helmut's placidity was sorely tested when a hulking asshole -- not a person, just a 6'3" anal canal; I wondered how he'd gotten past the bouncers -- grabbed him and began thrashing him around, apparently enraged that he'd stepped in front of him. We managed to get between them and calm things down, but it's a measure of how far I've come from my punk-rock past that it wasn't until several minutes later that I remembered the proper form of etiquette in that situation was to grab a nearby beer-bottle and clock the big lummox with it. Ah, well. Live and unlearn.

Ray's coming to a town near you soon. My advice: Drop everything and see him. Best Show Ever.


XTCfan said...

What he said.

I knew Ray Davies was a genius, but I had no idea he was such a great performer. He had total command of the audience from the moment he stepped on stage, and I was impressed by the power of the man and his songs, which seemed embedded in the minds of just about everyone there. The songs poured out of the audience members, who couldn't restrain themselves from singing along (me included). And, for all the command Ray had of the group, it was intensely personal -- at times, it seemed as if he was simply leading a sing-along at a local beer hall rather than fronting a very hot band at one of DC's hippest nightclubs.

I also commend Helmut on his patience and, if I could, would thank the woman who I think ultimately defused the conflict with said asshole by screaming, "DON'T RUIN THE FUCKING CONCERT!!" Given that we were so close to the stage that we were leaning on it, and Ray had been noticing the argument with growing concern as he gave a relatively quiet intro to a Kinks Klassic, she played a vital role. You gotta love women and their ability to pacify men.

Speaking of which, Ray's girlfriend, who sang harmonies on three or four songs, had me all riled up. Phwooar! No wonder he didn't hang around to chat up fans after the show...

XTCfan said...

BTW, the woman (who was about 5'3")screamed in the face of the asshole ... such bravery. Everyone around us knew Helmut was blameless in this. Though he's a tall guy, he was shorter than the asshole and had been with us for the entire show. The other guy had forced his way up front only during the final few songs.

helmut said...

Thanks, dudes. A great show and great to meet you both. The asshole guy, well, I had been telling him too not to ruin the show for others. He was clearly trying to start trouble and wanted to move up to the very front. elbowing everyone around him, especially me. The 5'1" girl thankfully saved me from having to expose my ninja training to the public.
I'm sorry Ray saw that. I didn't know.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great review of the show. I'm wondering how you know that the woman who did back up vocals is Ray's girlfriend?

I saw his show in Philadelphia last night and it was mindblowing. When this singer came out, Ray made a quip about her voice being a very close approximation of Dave's.

KevinHayden said...

Davies has always been a fave of mine so I'm jealous.

On the other hand, I just noticed a lesser light, but one I enjoyed in my prime rock years will be playing here next month. New Riders of the Purple Sage.

I'll be there. Might even invite Panama Red to join me...

blue girl said...

I know someone who had sex with Ray Davies once. But I am sworn to secrecy!

Interesting little tid-bit, huh?

Huh? Huh?

Never thought about Ray Davies having *sex* before....didja??


XTCfan said...

I'm wondering how you know that the woman who did back up vocals is Ray's girlfriend?

A friend of Ray's told me.

And Blue Girl -- we told you how Ray's performance was. Now it's your turn!

Anonymous said...

WE live in NOrth London very near Ray's old stamping ground of Muswell Hill and I saw him get outb of his car last week by his house in Highgate and he was locked out - had to wait for his foxy young girlfriend and they both looked a bit pissed off with ecah other haha