Review - Ray Davies, Supper Club, New York City

Ray Davies at the Supper Club

November 28, 2005
Thomas M. Kitts

Ray Davies, co-founder of the legendary Kinks, played his first New York City gig since summer 2000 at the Supper Club in midtown on November 28, 2005. It was a career-spanning set, drawing on songs from 1964 through his just released EP Thanksgiving Day. Backed by a three-piece band, Davies captivated the sold-out audience for over two hours with some twenty-six songs.

Like only a handful of other rock composers, Davies has written a deep catalogue of pop songs that transcend the genre to become first-rate works of art. His songs spring from his North London working-class roots, steeped not only in American blues and rock and roll but also in the British music hall and the "kitchen-sink" films of the 1950s and early 1960s. Throughout his career, Davies has created character portraits of marginalized individuals or Misfits, as the Kinks' 1978 album is entitled. Consider hits like "Lola" or magnificent album tracks like "Oklahoma U.S.A." from Muswell Hillbillies - both performed capably at the Supper Club and in the case of the latter, movingly. Deepened by an insightful socio-economic and political context, Davies's characters are often victims of a Big Brother-type global conglomerate that controls and exploits the under classes - he has developed this world view throughout his career but most fully in his "unauthorized" autobiography X-Ray (1994). It is Davies's awareness, perceptions, and sympathies expressed with lyrical sophistication, sometimes gorgeous melodies, and sometimes thunderous power chords that has sustained him and his music for over forty years now. Even when not at a creative peak, Davies is always at the very least interesting and worth a listen, which places him in the first rank of rock composers.

Not only a great composer, however, Davies is also a superior performer. (A manager once told me that he would direct his young acts to study Davies to learn how to work an audience.) His performance at the Supper Club came on the heels of a very successful UK tour that concluded in October. Davies, his usual trim and casually suave self, took the stage with a blue Stratocaster and launched into the Kinks' anthem, "I'm Not Like Everybody Else." The audience, hooked immediately, sang along as they would throughout the evening, sometimes providing otherwise absent background vocals. Davies followed his opener with "The Hard Way," the power-pop favorite from Schoolboy's in Disgrace (1975), and "Where Have All the Good Times Gone," a b-side from 1965 rescued from obscurity by David Bowie on Pinups in 1973. The subtle Davies may have been suggesting something about his career with these first three titles: I'm different, I've struggled and survived, and I wonder where the years have gone. The sixty-one-year-old Davies delivered theses songs, and every song throughout the evening, with passion, intensity, and high energy.

What separates Davies from many pop artists is his refusal to surrender his songs to nostalgia. His songs might often take a nostalgic view of an imagined England - that "green and pleasant land ... that throne of Kings, that sceptred isle set in a silver sea," as he sang the other night - but he refuses to play hits-by-numbers. He infuses old songs with new energies and spirit whether through new arrangements, different instrumentation, introductions, or contexts (specifically, the song's place relative to surrounding songs in the set).

Davies's set list at the Supper Club was almost as remarkable for what he left out as for what he performed. He omitted favorites like "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," "Well Respected Man," "Apeman," "Celluloid Heroes," "Rock N' Roll Fantasy," and "Come Dancing." A fourth of his set, in fact, was from Thanksgiving and the forthcoming Other People's Lives, which is scheduled for a February release - a word of caution: from the stage, Davies used "might" when referencing the release date. From what we heard in songs like "Next Door Neighbors," "After the Fall," "Things Are Gonna Change (The Morning After)," and "The Tourist," the album promises to be very strong and well worth its long wait. (Sessions began in the late 1990s.)

Showing little evidence of his New Orleans' gunshot wounds, Davies consistently topped himself throughout the evening. I'll suggest a couple of highlights: the powerfully rearranged "20th Century Man" from Muswell Hillbillies and the acoustic trio of songs from Village Green Preservation Society, the Kinks masterpiece. "20th Century Man" took on new meaning and urgency as Davies sang the opening verses, sans guitars, with support only from the pummeling bass of Dick Nolan and the pounding drums of Toby Baron, suggesting that world bureaucracies have become more brutal and more violent than when the song was released in 1971. In my other high point, Ray and Mark Johns, an exceptional guitarist, performed acoustic versions of "Village Green," "Johnny Thunder," and "Animal Farm," which was followed by a clever pairing: a sing-along tribute to the drunken and abusive aristocrat in "Sunny Afternoon" and a supportive chant for the poor evicted couple of "Dead End Street."

The evening ended with three encores and featured two of the finest pop songs Davies or anyone has ever written: "Days" and "Waterloo Sunset" - the latter with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" might be the most perfect pop songs and productions ever. Davies ended the evening with the always fun "Low Budget," which draws from both the blues and music-hall traditions as it presents a down-on-his- luck "toff" forced into shoes too small and trousers too tight.

Throughout the evening, Davies expressed concern in song, story, and pre-show music for the victims of the recent disaster in New Orleans. His sympathies, from which his songs develop, along with this performance at the Supper Club, suggest very eloquently what one of his hits, "Rock N' Roll Fantasy," first said in 1978: Ray Davies "might still have a way to go."

Set List
1. I'm Not Like Everybody Else
2. The Hard Way
3. Where Have All the Good Times Gone
4. After the Fall
5. Yours Truly Confused, N10
6. Next Door Neighbors
7. 20th Century Man
8. Oklahoma USA
9. Thanksgiving
10 Till the End of the Day
11. Village Green
12. Johnny Thunder
13. Animal Farm
14. Sunny Afternoon
15. Dead End Street
16. The Tourist
17. Stand Up Comic
18. Things Are Gonna Change (Morning After)
19. Tired of Waiting

Encore 1
20. Set Me Free
21. All Day and All of the Night

Encore 2
22. Days
23. You Really Got Me

Encore 3
24. Lola
25. Waterloo Sunset
26. Low Budget