A tale of two tours
Last week I got to see two of my musical heroes in back to back performances at Napa’s Uptown Theater. Ray Davies, the songwriting genius behind all of the Kinks hits, played on Tuesday night and a true music legend, Willie Nelson, played on Wednesday night.
When the Ray Davies show was announced in April, I got tickets right away. I had seen the Kinks at the Fillmore East in New York in 1969 and again at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville in 1982. Of all the British invasion bands, the Kinks were in my top three along with the Beatles and the Stones. Ray Davies writes with great wit, combining the playfulness of Paul McCartney with the acerbic style of John Lennon and it all becomes uniquely Ray Davies songs.
Davies opened his show with a short acoustic set, joined by guitarist Bill Shanley. The first tune was a Kink’s B-side called “I Need You.” They plowed through some five other hits before he brought out a four piece backing band, The 88, who also served as opening act, performing a 45-minute set of material from their various albums. The Los Angeles band has been backing Ray for the last couple of years, and while they are not Dave, Pete and Mick, (the other original Kinks) they did come pretty close.
The group was formed in 2002 by high school pals Adam Merrin, who plays piano, and Keith Slettedahl, lead vocalist and guitarist. Bassist Todd O’Keefe and drummer Anthony Zimmitti came on a bit later. They backed Davies on a British tour that included a stop at the Royal Albert Hall and they also got to record in his Konk studio in London where they worked on Ray’s “See My Friends” album, and backing Lucinda Williams, the late Alex Chilton, and Davies himself on the song “David Watts.”
At the Napa gig, Ray seemed to have as good a time on stage as the audience had in watching him. But it is probably a safe bet that the Kinks will never play together again, since Ray and his lead guitar playing brother Dave Davies can’t seem to get along. In a “Rolling Stone” interview several months ago, Davies offered an olive branch to his younger brother, but apparently it was not accepted.
Davies knows how to prance around like a rock star, but most of the time he is more akin to a British music hall performer who engages the crowd with a lot of call-and-response activity. He also encourages the audience to sing along, which they did with very little prompting. Blasting through a set of hits and album cuts, Davies thoroughly entertained with “Apeman,” “Victoria,” “Celluloid Heroes,” “A Well Respected Man,” “Till The End Of The Day,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Waterloo Sunset,” and of course “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.” He only performed one song from his latest solo album, the title track “Other People’s Lives.”
The following night, 79 year-old Willie Nelson walked on stage looking a little bit frail, but he perked up when the band kicked in and opened the show with “Whiskey River.” Willie does a quick 90 minutes — no more, no less. His son Lucas, who plays many shows with him, played lead guitar and sang an occasional background vocal.
Like Davies, Willie has more than 40 years of music to fill a 90-minute show. I am told that his set list varies only slightly, but he enthralled the crowd with “Still is Still Moving To Me,” “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” (his first Grammy win), “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I’m Gone,” from his latest album which is also a duet with Snoop Dog, a Hank Williams medley with “Move It On Over,” “I Saw The Light” and “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Good Hearted Woman” (for Waylon, he said), “Always On My Mind,” “Me & Paul,” and more.
He threw headbands, guitar picks and cowboy hats into the audience and for all the traveling he does every year and all the shows he plays, he still appears to be having a great time on stage.
An incredibly gifted songwriter, he penned “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls,” “Pretty Paper” and hundreds of other songs including “Crazy” that was recorded by Patsy Cline and remains the most played jukebox song in history.
A true American treasure, Willie still knows how to entertain a crowd. In a recent show in Atlanta, Roselyn and Jimmy Carter (wearing headbands) came out on stage to sing “Amazing Grace” with him.
Two musical legends in two nights was an amazing experience for this somewhat jaded music writer. I felt like a kid during Ray Davies show and was just plain blown away by watching and listening to Willie. And kudos to the Uptown for presenting a wonderful cross-section of music. That theatre has become my favorite place to be entertained.