"Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues" / The Kinks
Just got home from a lovely evening at the B. B. King Blues Club here in New York City, where an ensemble calling themselves Muswell Hillbillies performed a nearly note-perfect rendition of (duh) the Kinks' 1971 album Muswell Hillbillies. Now, I'm a sucker for any Kinks-related activity, and Muswell Hillbillies is my favorite Kinks album, so you know I had to go, despite my natural skepticism about "tribute" bands. And all of my Kinks friends were there, so even if it had turned out to be a mediocre mess, I'd have had a good time.
The opening act, a genial act called The Blue Meanies, lived up to my expectations -- they rambled through a number of Kinks songs, strumming enthusiastically on their acoustic guitars and dutifully singing the lyrics, but with the original songs so alive in my head, these approximate versions were hardly satisfying.
But damned if Muswell Hillbillies didn't surprise me. Performing these songs is clearly a labor of love for these guys -- they'd taken the time to break down every track on the albums and painstakingly reproduce the arrangements. The lead singer (didn't catch his name -- was it Dave Simons?) was positively channeling Ray Davies in his vocals, while the lead guitarist ripped off those classic Dave licks as fresh as yesterday. Best of all, the group included a spiffy horn section of high school kids, many of whom doubled on backing vocals and percussion as well, so every track blossomed in its full dimensions. I swear, having those kids up on stage along with the adult band leaders gave the whole thing an extra freshness and energy. (I think it also helped that the whole gang were from Hadley, Massachusetts, and clearly excited to be performing on 42nd Street in the heart of Manhattan.)
As far as I'm concerned, tribute bands shouldn't "interpret" -- they should be as faithful as is humanly possible. (That's why I've always loved the Fab Faux's Beatles tributes.) You should be able to shut your eyes and imagine that you're just playing a pristine copy of the original vinyl on a superb record player. And Muswell Hillbillies pulled off that trick tonight.
Here's a video of these guys in action (amateur video, but still it gives you an idea), performing the album's second track, the blowsy, comical "Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues."
Now I know this really isn't fair, but for comparison's sake, here's a clip of the Kinks themselves, doing the same song:
As a man who has flirted with nervous breakdowns his entire life, Ray Davies does seem to have some special insight into the mental collapse the singer claims to be going through. He's deeply suspicious of everyone around him -- a thoroughly mundane crew of neighbors and shopkeepers in an ordinary suburban community -- and he's paralyzed: "I'm too terrified to walk out of my own front door," he laments. I love the quavers that Ray throws into his voice as he sings these lines.
Because of course we can't take it seriously. The Dixieland jazz arrangement tells us that; Ray's campy voice, the exaggerated situations, underscore it. The psychiatrist -- "my local head shrinker" -- shakes his head and pronounces this as "one of those cases of acute schizophrenia he's seen." The disease is, in fact, everywhere -- "I've got it, you've got it, we can't lose / Acute schizophrenia blues." So if everyone's mad, who is sane?
It's all part of Muswell Hillbillies' Side 1 satire on the pressures of modern life, from the lament of the "20th Century Man" -- a walking anachronism stuck in the wrong era -- to the anorexic of "Skin and Bone" and the drunkard of "Alcohol." Right after this song is the super-campy "Holiday," in which Ray's character minces his way through a seaside "rest cure." Oh, yes, it's all very funny -- and yet there's a poignance beneath it all, with so many characters incapable of coping with this brave new world they're living in.
Yet sitting in that club tonight, belting out "Schiz-o-phree-nia! schizo-phrenia!" was a wonderfully cathartic, therapeutic experience. I have no hope that I'll ever see the Kinks again, let alone see the Kinks performing Muswell Hillbillies in its entirety. But these Muswell Hillbillies delivered the next best thing, and I couldn't have enjoyed it more. Let's hope they are working on a new production for next year -- The Village Green Preservation Society, perhaps?