Kinks frontman Ray Davies took the stage of San Francisco’s soon-to-close Warfield Theatre Friday night with an aquamarine Fender guitar and launched into his self-descriptive “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.” This obscure 1966 B side suggested that the first of his handful of rare solo shows would neither be focused solely on promoting the preeminent English songwriter’s new album Working Man’s Cafe nor dominated by the Kinks’ most familiar hits. Yet the crowd sang the chorus loudly without much prompting, a sure signal that this audience was comprised of serious Davies/Kinks fans, and that their hero knew just how to reach them.
Nearly every Kinks tune from Davies’ two sets — popular or otherwise — was met with a sing-along response that the unrepentant ham onstage was eager to encourage. “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” “A Well Respected Man” and “Days” were all treated to arrangements that would prematurely stop and then build back up again in order to give the crowd a chance to clearly hear itself and feel the power of its collective voice. Throughout the evening, Davies gesticulated with a vaudevillian broadness that underlines his aesthetic debt to British music hall traditions. During the intro to “The Tourist,” he left the stage to return in a Union Jack sport coat, and when the song finished, he pointedly turned the jacket inside out to reveal an American flag. His four-piece band remained well within its supporting role, leaving the spotlight where it should: on the showman and his keenly observed songs.
Whereas the first set wove songs from Davies’ 2006 solo album Other People’s Lives between Kinks cult classics, the second featured a largely acoustic five-song serving from Working Man’s Cafe before climaxing with expected crowd-pleasers like “Sunny Afternoon,” “Lola” and “You Really Got Me.” Although Davies often rocked harder than he did during previous solo tours, his between-song patter was marked by softness and striking wistfulness. He offered affectionate memories of his former band, paying particular tribute to his estranged brother Dave. Despite the indignation of his latest material, Davies seems far more sincere these days, and it suits him.