In concert: Ray Davies (Toronto; November 25, 2011)

“He creates a mass memory for us all, for an England that possibly did or didn’t exist.” – David Bowie, 2004

Rather than rely upon that so-called mass memory, I resorted to the worst possible approach before my first Ray Davies concert, spending three weeks immersed in decades-old Kinks records the singer couldn’t possibly hope to outdo on his current tour. That thing where you worry it’s a little late in the game to see an artist for the first time? It could’ve happened here.

Davies booked into the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Friday night (November 25), a kompletely Kinksian name for a venue that produces one of Toronto’s best live audio experiences, one which would’ve been the perfect setting for the Village Green- and Arthur-period songs he’s been playing this tour. Sometimes in recent years, Davies has played with a choir, an arrangement which has produced some performances of astonishing beauty and power. Alas, the Toronto show wouldn’t go in for such grandiloquence.

Then again, The Kinks were a rock band and there’s a lot to be said for viscera. And at 67, Davies has plenty of that.

 

Limber and jittery, the Davies persona projected from the stage clashes with reports of a prickly artistic temperament. Closer to Townshend’s chatty courtliness than Jagger’s affected pose, but with a twist of Brian Wilson’s garrulous cheerleading: the show featured more invocations to dance, clap and finish lyrics than anything this side of a children’s day camp. The old master painter held court, dispensing Wikipedia-ready song facts, front-row handshakes and at least three scissor-kicks. He might’ve introduced his band about four times too. See my friends.

The Davies Toronto program – 20 songs, 95 minutes – was a play of two halves, a songwriter set with a solid accompanist named Bill Shanley and a rock set which included keyboardist Ian Gibbons, a 1980s Kink. Classics fuelled both portions, and Davies wasn’t shy about picking through the entire catalogue. Some of the omissions were startling (only one song from that Village Green/Arthur period), but his songbook is so deep it took a while to register.

The songwriter set’s a mixed blessing. You can evidently play a Kinks tune any number of ways, but this is the riskiest. Only occasionally a shouter on record, his default delicacy goes a little sour if he’s under pitch. Years removed from his Kinks records, Davies occasionally misses notes, and I’m not sure whether it’s because muscle memory’s betraying him or his accompaniment isn’t up to snuff – Dave Davies’ plaintive, high harmony is seriously missed – or whether it’s intentional. Whatever the reason, sometimes it worked: under-pitching gave “Sunny Afternoon” and “See My Friends” added poignancy. And if the other problem with acoustic sets is one of tone-deaf and tempo-challenged neighbours pissing all over easy sing-a-longs like “Apeman” and “Victoria”, thankfully neither issue affected the crown jewel in Davies’ canon, “Waterloo Sunset.”

Heralded by that spine-tingling, descending guitar figure, “Waterloo Sunset” brought the amateur singers to bay. The night’s first real test of Davies’ present-day inflection, “Sunset” is a series of incredibly gratifying, simple melodies and words, variously described as “London’s greatest song” (Uncut, 2004) and “the most beautiful song in the English language” (Robert Christgau). I’ve heard Roger Daltrey – even on a bad night – turn the clock back 30-odd years to detonate that powderkeg climax to “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Davies, with the jury still out on whether this would be a good night at the Queen Liz, went in the other direction to prove his mettle, singing “but I won’t…be afraid…as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset I am in paradise” with such ginger precision it reduced my limbs to jelly while that searing guitar line bridged to the next verse. You shudder when you hear that kind of artistry, I tell you. London’s greatest song. The most beautiful song in the English language. Hey, maybe.

 

The Queen Liz’ sound mix was superb. With the band on for the second half of the show, a fleshy, post-Woodstock, FM radio mix held everything to the light: drums crisp as a new dollar bill, organ and piano distortion-free, guitars full of bite and depth. Everything I don’t get for the 80 per cent of the shows I have to see in stuffy clubs. I swear man, I’d pay another $20 for every indie rock band to book up a rung on the ladder if they all sounded like this.

The band set afforded Davies familiar Kinks arrangements, and with them came the expected upsurge in crowd energy. The clattering early-career singles – “Till The End Of The Day,” “All Day And All Of The Night,” “You Really Got Me” – flew by in two- and three-minute bursts of testosterone; set pieces like “Celluloid Heroes” and “Misfits” (the latter replete with guest appearance from fan, local hero and apparent acid-head Ron Sexsmith) glimmered warmly. The torchy, downcast “Too Much On My Mind”- my personal song of the past month – was a delightful deep catalogue dip.

In closing with “Come Dancing,” Davies might’ve wrapped the inherent nostalgia of his show inside the message of the song, a longing for a particular, fondly recalled-but-lost time. Once again, he flatted a few notes, but it didn’t stop him from whipping the crowd into another call-and-response routine. We stood and clapped, some of us lamenting the absence of “Lola” and “Days” from the Queen Liz setlist, some of us flashing on arena tours from the sloppy end of the ‘70s, some of us envisioning low-res YouTube clips-as-reference points on a hall of fame resume. Davies knows how to keep a mind turning. The songs create a mass memory for us all. “Don’t be afraid to have yourself a ball. Don’t be afraid to come dancing, it’s only natural.”

An admission: too far from the stage to get decent pictures, in my search for something better I stumbled upon a few YouTube clips from the Toronto show. Thus, two of my terrible pictures are actually screen caps. They work better as videos. Here’re a few, courtesy YouTube user hystericallycalm.

Waterloo Sunset, acoustic, November 25, 2011

All Day And All Of The Night, November 25, 2011

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