Old hippies of a certain vintage reminisce fondly about the days of free festivals, which has been unthinkable to my generation, once the corporate world cottoned on to the fact there was money to be made out of live rock n roll.
Until now that is. Elton John was scheduled to headline this show, part of the British Summer Time gigs at Hyde Park that also included Bon Jovi and two Stones shows, but just 72 hours before had to pull out with appendicitis. However, rather than cancel, the organisers turned it into a free show with the existing supporting cast, some of them moved up the order, given longer sets or promoted to the main stage.
Having scored a ticket at short notice, I was only able to arrive after a full day’s work and ideally would have liked to have seen Nick Lowe, but caught the majority of Justin Currie’s set. The former frontman of Del Amitri, whose bittersweet melodic songs were one of the few high points of what were for me the musical desert years of the nineties, was appearing in the Barclaycard unwind theatre, a bizarre temporary structure designed to give the feel of a vintage musical theatre.
On keyboards and guitar and accompanied only by a harmony singer on occasion, he mixed rather too many solo numbers for my liking with his usual bone dry humour and a trio of Del Amitri songs in Tell Her This, Move Away Jimmy Blue and best of all Driving with the Brakes On.
Heading out into the huge park a few minutes ahead of Elvis Costello’s show time, I was frustrated that he was already on stage, playing one of my favourites of his in Accidents Will Happen.
My only previous experience of him had been underwhelming when he played a subdued country flavoured set supporting Paul McCartney here three years ago, but this was the real deal, far more in the sparky spirit that made him one of the New Wave’s most significant figured in the late seventies, even if his accent has a Mid Atlantic twang these days.
Indeed, among up-tempo numbers like I Can’t stand up for falling down, it was great to hear Radio Radio, the song that sparked a hilarious spat with Tony Blackburn back in 1978, with added keyboard flourishes from Steve Nieve.
With a pink boater that looked from a distance like a kiss-me-quick hat his only concession to flamboyance, he reeled off one hit after another including the reggae flavoured Watching the Detectives and ballad Alison.
The pace dipped for She and Good Year for the Roses, but picked up again with Oliver’s Army, which after a teasing acoustic beginning kicked into life and various women of a certain age singing and dancing, while for me I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea was even better, with some excellent ensemble playing from his band the Imposters (who as well as Nieve also included Attractions drummer Pete Thomas).
While in other circumstances this may have been a finale, the generous set length allowed further songs including Red Shoes, a cover of Purple Rain, the uptempo Pump it Up with prominent piano which got people dancing and a classy version of What’s So Funny bout Peace Love and Understanding.
The encores were a bit of a letdown with the deep political sentiments of Shipbuilding just too mournful for a gig of this size and nature and I Want You seeing the band jam excessively, but the former Declan McManus came off stage with my faith in him newly restored and he is probably underappreciated as one of the enduring songwriters of our time.
Whether because of the warm evening of a type rarely glimpsed in England or the free nature of the show there was a marvellously relaxed feel to the evening, and who better to be the party host than Ray Davies, coming on stage like a much-loved dotty uncle, but who as singer and chief songwriter in the Kinks inspired a generation of bands to this day, from Van Halen to Blur.
Wisely, his set stuck to the tried and tested. Solo material was left for another day, as generally was lesser known album material, although 20th Century Man gave his excellent band (including former Kink Ian Gibbons on keyboards) an opportunity to stretch out and Full Moon, which was new to me, had a wistful country flavour. Instead, 24 hours before the Stones show here, he showed off the legacy of one of the few sixties bands that could rival them for significance and lasting impact.
Ray’s voice is rather tired and thin these days, though to give him the benefit of the doubt when speaking he also sounded as if his throat was suffering. However, after Where Have all the Good Times Gone and I’m Not like Everybody Else got the place warmed up, he sat down with acoustic guitar and was the ringmaster as the whole crowd took over in a communal singalong to enduring classics Sunny Afternoon, Dead End Street and Dedicated Follower of Fashion.
There were regular reminders how the Kinks were ahead of their time, from the Easterm mysticism of See My Friend, with the guitarist from indie band Spoon guesting, to Till the End of the Day, All Day and All of the Night showing how garage rock was invented, as the band and guitarist Bill Shanley in particular rocked out.
Not all songs worked as they might- Ray implicitly recognised an acoustic driven Waterloo Sunset might have needed an extra oomph when he repeated part of it with full band, while a rearranged Come Dancing also seemed lightweight compared to the original.
Dryly, he also said he wasn’t going to play Tired of Waiting for You but changed his mind after a bank used it for an advert. However he did strike a discordant note when wishing Elton John well he referred to him as the distinctly unflattering ‘Bunter’.
But I was delighted that despite its length, he still found time to play Celluloid Heroes with some of Davies’ cleverest lyrics about the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the sadness behind the stars. Dedicating it to brother Dave, in contrast You Really Got Me sounded almost as fresh and urgent as when it arguably was the first heavy metal song in 1964 before Ray finished off with Days and everyone was singing along whether they remembered it from the sixties, or in the case of us younger fans a yellow pages advert.
Playing a 90 minute set right up to the 1030 curfew, risking a repeat of Springsteen’s cut off last year, this most English of characters fittingly donned a Union Jack jacket as he inevitably encored with Lola.
As I left the arena, parties of people were still singing the chorus- it was that kind of night. And if you haven’t seen one of popular music’s original masters, go and do so before its too late, even if you have to pay for it.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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