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Working Out the Kinks: Ray Davies at Rams Head Tavern, March 2

March 9, 2010

As the pop stars of the 1960s enter their 60s, as their hairlines recede and voices roughen, the second-tier stars begin to play smaller and smaller rooms. Thus it was possible on the night of March 2, within the intimate confines of Annapolis’s Rams Head Tavern, to sit less than 20 feet from Ray Davies and hear him tell stories and crack jokes about his many years with the Kinks. The Kinks may not have had the commercial clout of their peers—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Who—but Davies was the best lyricist of the bunch, and to hear him deliver those lyrics from a bar stool accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and lead guitarist Bill Shanley was a treat indeed.

It took six songs for the frogs in Davies’ throat to retreat and his voice to clear for a spirited rockabilly tribute to Queen “Victoria.” He then read the opening paragraphs from his “unauthorized autobiography,” X-Ray: “I am a product of a century which started at the height of class-conscious imperialism and ended with a society so reduced to totalitarian commonness that in my final years at college the saying ‘mediocrity rises’ proliferated.” The author, still long and lean in a dark blazer at age 66, looked up from his book and drolly added, “I was mediocre, so I rose.”

He wasn’t much of a looker or much of a singer, that’s true, but he wrote some of the smartest, catchiest songs of that exceptionalist decade, and he proved it by singing “20th Century Man,” a jaunty music-hall number about “biological warfare” and “civil servants dressed in gray.” It was so jaunty, in fact, that much of the baby-boomer audience in Annapolis belted out the refrain, “I’m a 20th century man, but I don’t want to be here,” with as much gusto as if they were singing “God Save the Queen.”

A few minutes later, Davies was describing his move to Louisiana after the Kinks disbanded, even getting the broad New Orleans accent just right as he imitated two of the locals discussing their new British neighbor. “He wrote that faggot song ‘Lola,’” Davies impersonated. “What are we going to do about it?” “I don’t know. Shoot him, I guess.” Davies, of course, did get shot by a robber in the French Quarter, but he didn’t dwell on that. Instead he sang his post-Kinks song about the strange experience of being “The Tourist.”

He did some but not all of his big hits, but he also delved into the neglected corners of his catalog, retrieving such gems as “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (which, he explained, had been used by The Sopranos), “Take the Hard Way” (which he dedicated to the late Doug Fieger of the Knack, who had recorded the song), “Postcard from London” (which he identified as a new song), and “Two Sisters” (which, he explained, was really about him and his brother).

Even as Ray paid tribute to his brother Dave, he couldn’t resist pointing out, “He was annoying a lot of the time; he’s still annoying.” He recalled all the rejection letters they got from English record labels in the early ’60s, explaining, “They all said the same thing: The singer was ugly and the guitarist sounded working-class. But that’s what we wanted—to sound working-class. One label said that Dave’s guitar sounded like a barking dog. Ah, but what a dog and what a bark.” And with that, he launched into the Kinks’ garage-rock anthem, “All Day and All of the Night.”

Then he called out the 88, the Los Angeles jangle-pop quartet which had opened the show, to join him and Shanley for loud, raucous, barking-dog versions of “You Really Got Me” and “Lola.” The crowd was on its feet and singing along, as if in church.

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