Ray Davies at the Pabst Theater
On a cold Wednesday night in the urban heat island that is downtown Milwaukee, there was the familiar warmness of the Pabst Theater. In his best storyteller mode, former Kinks leader and accomplished solo artist Ray Davies was only missing a crackling fireplace. Perched on a stool, sipping alternately from the water bottle and hot tea secured on his mic stand, the 67-year-old music legend talked to the crowd amiably about certain songs and his artist history.
“I promise I’m gonna fine myself $5 every time I say the word ‘Kinks’,” he told the crowd in a banter now rote and noted by rock critics on his last four stops.
Davies is on a North American tour of 15 cities, his first since 2009 when he released two albums, Collected and The Kinks Choral Collection. This time last year, a Stateside tour that would have highlighted a new collaboration album known as See My Friends was cancelled after doctors forbid it until his medical condition improved. While the brunt of the instrumental work was provided in a two-man set with Irish guitarist Bill Shanley and later by opening band The 88 (more on them in a bit), Davies still provides a presence and voice that comforts and wails. It was a low-key effort, surely, but accepted given his age and physical condition.
Before the first number of “I Need You (More Than Anyone Else)” could begin, there is a point of reverence and gratitude eminating from the audience for many rock concert memories. Merely walking onstage elicited a standing ovation from much of the two tiers in the Pabst. Davies’ register is now gravelly and he has to close his eyes tightly and look upward as he croons. There is an appreciation for the way the musician sounds now in the same way listeners found a new appreciation for Johnny Cash on his albums with Rick Rubin.
More important than nostalgia for Kinks-past and being able to hit every musical note is what Davies had to say about life. This was when Davies is at his best, after he would return from the occasional break and talk about whatever with the crowd.
“I don’t really write love songs because I don’t believe in them much.”
He would then launch into a tribute to intimacy and lost companionship with “Waterloo Sunset,” or regale meeting Lucinda Williams at SXSW for what would end up being “Long Way from Home” on his latest collaborative album. Much of the concert was a reflective wisdom on a life well spent. The other part of the first acoustic half was a mass hymnal karaoke session, complete with well-timed house lights as Davies would frequently stop from singing a well-versed verse to let the crowd do it for themselves.
It was a long concert, over three hours total. The first 40 minutes was filled by the talented L.A.-based group The 88, who act here in the second half of Davies’s set as a backing band on both his album and tour, despite having their own successful fifth album in 2010 and a few years of scoring songs for TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, Weeds, and How I Met Your Mother in addition to soundtrack songs for several movies. Oh, and prominent Sears and Target commercials. And the very recognizable theme song to Community. The point is, The 88 is ready for the spotlight.
The quartet performed an energetic and rollicking set. Lead singer Keith Slettedahl can only be described as Buddy Holly’s grandson wearing Ray Davies’s skinny jeans. His bandmates look like they’ve stumbled out of a modern-day version of Head or That Thing You Do! The 88’s verve may be better served for a typical Friday night crowd at the Pabst, where the front ten rows of chairs are hauled away and a poppy dance party sets off.
Davies at last gratefully said goodnight, promised to return with a new album next year, and left the stage. The general theater lights came up. The crowd bellowed and screamed. There was no “Lola.” How could we go on, they thought, knowing this may be our last chance to hear that song live?
Want to hear Ray Davies sing the hits and more with Bruce Springsteen, Metallica, Mumford and Sons, Spoon, and others? You can find more information on that album here. Want to see Davies get together with brother Dave Davies for a defacto reunion of the Kinks? In an April article for Rolling Stone, Ray basically said “I’ll do it if Dave will” and Dave reportedly says “I’ll do it if Ray will.” They’ve been saying this for 15 years.