The decision by the South Bank Centre to choose Ray Davies as the curator of 2011’s Meltdown festival was not altogether surprising given their summer-long celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Festival Of Britain. There aren’t many candidates that possess a similar level of elevated heritage and defined Englishness to that held by the former frontman of The Kinks.
His multi-generation spanning influence provided an added justification and a deeper context for his appointment. The festival line-up itself may not be quite as adventurous or genre-encompassing as some of its recent predecessors (those curated by Ornette Coleman and Massive Attack in particular) but that could not mask the sense of anticipation that buzzed around the foyers of the Royal Festival Hall ahead of the opening night.
His first of two performances over the fortnight would see him play a set with his regular band, concentrating on classic selections from The Kinks’ back catalogue and tracks from his solo career. Tonight’s show would not feature anything from The Village Green Preservation Society, due to be performed with orchestra and choir on the final night of the festival. The first half of the show is largely acoustic, predominantly just Davies and one other band member on stage. His backing band would later expand to a well-drilled four-piece.
He opens with two lesser well known Kinks tracks, This Is Where I Belong and I Need You. Autumn Almanac follows, an early highlight, and the first of many tracks to involve the audience helping sing the chorus. He regularly engages with the audience, introducing Dedicated Follower Of Fashion as “an Irish folk song” and mentioning in an attempt at mild self-deprecation how he now fines himself whenever he mentions the words “The Kinks”. The slightly goofy Apeman appears early in the set alongside some tracks from the lesser frequented corners of The Kinks back catalogue.
His voice is still in great shape and he appears relaxed and sharp-witted from the beginning, joking with photographers and revelling in the occasion. He talks about how some of his songs have featured in films and does a funny impersonation of film director Wim Wenders just prior to playing the two tracks that appeared in his film The American Friend, Nothing In The World Can Stop Me Worrying About That Girl and Too Much On My Mind.
The hits continue to come, the sensitively played See My Friends followed later by a woozy version of Sunny Afternoon. We get to hear the briefest of glimpses of Victoria, before Davies truncates the song in order to read a few lines from his autobiography X-Ray. Later, he reveals how he wrote Morphine Song whilst in intensive care after being shot in New Orleans in 2004, surprising in many ways as it proves that his ability to write catchy pop songs has not deserted him over the years, even in times of difficulty. It is also an example of how he likes to verbally annotates most of the songs played tonight.
Towards the end Davies leaves the stage briefly, returning in casual clothes for an encore that features Till The End Of The Day, All Day And All Of The Night and You Really Got Me, each song still possessing a raw, primal energy. The latter sees Davies speak about his brother Dave, crediting him with the riff and arguably changing the direction of rock music as a result. He plays a poignant version of Waterloo Sunset, tonight residing in its spiritual home, only a stone’s throw away from the river, bridge and train station referenced in the lyrics. He modestly introduces it as “just a song, but one that means a lot to me”. Renditions of Days and Lola end the show.
Rumours of a Kinks reunion still abound, with brothers Ray and Dave recently trading offers to reform via the press in almost brinkmanship style, but tonight it doesn’t really seem so important. The accomplished, generous and celebratory set played by Davies ensured that this year’s Meltdown festival was to get off to a crowd-pleasing, flying start.