It’s undoubtedly one of the greatest songs ever written but I’d be surprised if “Waterloo Sunset” was all that popular a karaoke choice. Those notes are hard to hit, as even Paul Weller discovered when he turned up and duetted with Ray Davies at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday night.
It must be quite a challenge to be a surprise guest, especially if – as with Weller – you’re only on for one song. There aren’t many situations in which The Jam legend would find himself deferring to an even bigger figure, but this was one. And he had no chance to warm up for a performance of a song which has come to be seen as London’s unofficial anthem.
The last time Davies sang it in public was at the closing ceremony of London 2012. A more fitting choice was hard to imagine – not just because it’s a love letter to the capital and the lights were going out after an era-defining 16 days but because Davies’s music has been expressing all that’s best about “ordinary” lives since long before Danny Boyle came along with his NHS beds.
In that sense this concert felt like part of London 2012’s long after-glow – a celebration, a wallow, a knees-up, a trip down memory lane, and a glorying in the communitarian side of the capital’s life that may or may not have passed into history. Davies’s 50-year career has had many a peak and trough but right now he’s part of the zeitgeist, which explains why he could sell out the Albert Hall only a few years after he was making do with much more modest venues like the Bloomsbury Theatre. It was just a pity that the whole thing was so uneven.
For all his warmth and charm, there was no getting away from the fact that, at 68, Davies’s vocal range is not what it was, and it was particularly exposed on the slower numbers. A faltering opening sequence in which he was accompanied only by fellow-guitarist Bill Shandy included a version of “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” that mangled it up and drained it of its satirical spirit in a manner that put one in mind of Bob Dylan at his most perverse. “See My Friends” – a song Davies told us he wrote in response to the death of one of his sisters – struggled to attain much poignancy.
Things picked up when the rest of the band came on. You could hear how “20th Century Man” presaged punk by a good five years. Davies could go on the attack, and it suited him better. There was an ebullient rendition of “All Day and All of the Night”, likewise “You Really Got Me”. But in spite the welcome inclusion of the very fine support act James Walbourne, the problem of a general blurriness remained.
“If there’s anything we’ve forgotten, I’m sorry,” Davies said as he left the stage for the final time. It wasn’t so much a case of what he’d forgotten as what he’d remembered not quite coming together.