Ray Davies, Bloomsbury Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

"It's been a very difficult year for everybody," Ray Davies admits, the nearest he gets to acknowledging his being shot in the leg by muggers in New Orleans, and the recent stroke suffered by his brother and co-Kink, Dave.

"It's been a very difficult year for everybody," Ray Davies admits, the nearest he gets to acknowledging his being shot in the leg by muggers in New Orleans, and the recent stroke suffered by his brother and co-Kink, Dave. But 2004 has been a year of revival for Davies, too, as the reissue of The Kinks' 1968 album, Village Green Preservation Society, has given focus to the British public's lasting affection for his band. The format of his solo show, though, remains untouched: to lead his fans in cheery singalongs to some of pop's most deathless, deeply ambiguous lyrics.

Tonight's crowd, however, don't want to join in. Most are over 40, many over 60, and all seem trapped by old-fashioned English reserve, fearful of causing a scene by being the first to sing out. The irony of such behaviour as Davies sings "Set Me Free" is hard to miss: it is as if he is singing to the subjects of his satirical songs of suburban conformity, not just about them.

The daring nature of tonight's set-list doesn't help. Opening with the brilliant 1966 B-side "I'm Not Like Everybody Else", the most desperately confessional song he wrote, is a brazen statement of intent. Davies, still trim and bouncing with frenetic, adolescent energy, has also drilled his band in the tight, raucous hard-rock of The Kinks' stadium years - and the abrasive lyrics and violent music battle with the massed, still silence in this theatre's stalls. When Davies switches to the quiet of acoustic guitar, it is so you can hear the struggle between desperate nostalgia and inevitable disillusion in his old songs, the impossible ache, as in "Picture Book", for "those days when we were happy, a long time ago".

New songs, slated for a long-promised solo album, stand their ground in such company. "Next Door Neighbours", built from simple, strong memories of Davies's north-London childhood, is deeply emotional; "Creatures of Little Faith" and "Stand-up Comic" show Davies's acting skill, first observing, then inhabiting vastly different characters. Nagging, melodic choruses show his pop brain is also sparking again.

His back-catalogue is imaginatively raided, too, turning up such treasures as 1971's paranoid existentialist blues "20th Century Man", another song that few feel crazed enough to join in with, despite Davies's hopeful hand-claps. His desire for participation, in fact, at times undercuts the power of his performance.

Inevitably, though, it is Kinks cornerstones that finally crack the crowd's reserve. For "You Really Got Me", Davies tells the story of its writing, 40 years ago, playing the part of brother Dave (the combative foil he still misses live), before exploding into its brutal riff. "Waterloo Sunset" is introduced, truthfully, as "your song", something beyond him now. He sings it almost to himself, humbly. Its perfection ambushes me with a sudden rush of emotion. Then "Days" levers open the heart, its themes of loss and memory hitting heavier with each year. By now, of course, the crowd are on their feet, some crying. Genius will out.

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