‘Storytellers’ Made to Order for Ray Davies
Rock singers don’t usually talk much about their songs in concert. Maybe it’s a matter of letting the music speak for itself, or maybe they figure that too much information will corral the listeners’ imaginations.
So the premise of the new VH1 series “Storytellers,” is a good one: Put a performer in an intimate space and have him (sorry, but the first four scheduled storytellers are all men) sing the songs and tell the stories behind them.
It’s a format made to order for the star of Sunday’s opener: The Kinks’ Ray Davies, who’s been presenting an autobiographical mix of music and recitation in clubs and theaters since last fall. One of rock’s indisputably great songwriters, Davies finds new dimensions in his music by playing it on acoustic guitar, with backing by guitarist Pete Matheson.
Much of the hour is straight from the stage show, but he ranges beyond its repertoire with such songs as “Come Dancing,” “Dead End Street” and “Celluloid Heroes.” An impromptu, a cappella version of “Harry Rag” in response to a shout from the audience typifies the show’s spontaneity and warmth. While Davies is an engaging host, there’s also a guarded and reticent quality about him, so the act of discussing the songs carries a real sense of sharing something precious.
No matter how long this series runs, it’s not likely there will be a more moving performance than the “Waterloo Sunset” that closes this segment. Davies tells no story about this pop classic, as if any comment would violate its emotional purity. Some premises are made to be broken.
The music of Jackson Browne, the subject of the June 9 episode, is heavy-handed and lightheaded by comparison, but the singer-songwriter, working with full band and backup singers, builds up some contagious enthusiasm for the format, offering a long-discarded verse from one song and framing others with modestly enlightening anecdotes.
Coming up: Elvis Costello (June 16) and Lyle Lovett (June 23).
* “Storytellers” premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday and repeats Thursday at 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on cable’s VH1.