It's an overcast Saturday in Los Angeles, and Ray Davies is on the road again. The longtime leader of the Kinks is in the back seat of a car sent by his label, riding from LAX to his hotel in tinted glasses and a Panama hat, a small suitcase between his knees. He looks pleased.
He was in San Francisco the night before, and in about nine hours Davies would be onstage with his new band at the Wiltern, performing 90 minutes of Kinks songs and material from his quietly ambitious new album, "Working Man's Cafe." It's only his second solo album since the Kinks broke up in 1996, more than three decades after the band emerged as a leading force in the '60s British Invasion. From the beginning, Davies was among his generation's most influential songwriters, spanning proto-metal ("You Really Got Me") to the wistful and theatrical ("Sunny Afternoon").
He still works hard at it. "I'm finding my feet," Davies says quietly. "People say, 'Why did the first album take so long?' I didn't really want to do one."
Back in the '70s, coming to L.A. often meant watching Randolph Scott westerns well into the night on the TV at his hotel. "The heroes and villains were clearly defined," Davies says. He looks out the window and sees oil pumps beside the road. "Culver City . . . I wrote a whole short story about driving past Culver City."
Davies published his collection of short stories, "Waterloo Sunset," in 1997. Like the Who's Pete Townshend, he became known for lyrics with a literary flair, balancing sweeping musical statements with satire and vivid storytelling.
On "Working Man's Cafe," Davies aims his songwriting at recent life experience, including the trauma of being shot in the leg by a mugger in New Orleans in 2004. "Morphine Song" is based on his night in intensive care, a moving scene set against a playful melody of horns and acoustic guitar, with Davies' refrain, "Listen to my heartbeat . . . someone help me off of the ground."
"I just want to make good music," Davies says. "If it engages some of the real-life things that have happened to me, that's quite good, because I've rarely done that."
At the Wiltern, Davies would be as energetic a performer as fans might remember, hopping and running in place during the charged "All Day and All of the Night," a song still explosive and thrilling in a new century, as rough and fiery as a fresh Jack White riff. But the bullet wound still bothers him.
"It affected an old football injury from when I was a kid," says the 63-year-old musician. "But I'm getting by. I'm having a good day today."
After briefly trying to record the new album in London, Davies traveled to the Nashville studio of Ray Kennedy, who co-produced and helped Davies recruit a band of sympathetic players. They finished basic tracks in just 14 days.
Among those was "You're Asking Me," a wry response to the endless questions from all corners on songwriting and notorious episodes from the Kinks' long history. Davies sometimes teaches a songwriting seminar but claims to have no songwriting secrets, no magic formula to pass on. He sings, "Do we listen to the past? -- No never do / It's up to you to make your own mistakes / Have a go and break a leg."
Davies explains: "I was in a relationship with a girl, and she was saying, 'What was it like when you played with Frank Zappa, and did he really fall off the stage?' Always one question after another. Even people that I work with, they like to say, 'What was that fight all about? Why were you banned from America?' "
Not that Davies is ready to leave his past behind. He speaks openly of missing his old band and hopes to reunite the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members' original lineup from 1964. His plan is for the band to try imagining what direction it might have taken if "You Really Got Me" and other early hits never happened.
"We can't all be 19 again," he says, "but what would we have done? I hope we wouldn't have been a bar band."
He talks also of reuniting other versions of the Kinks -- the '70s lineup that released "Lola" and the '80s band that scored with "Come Dancing."
Each of those bands included his younger brother, guitarist Dave Davies. The pair have famously fought through the decades, sometimes onstage, with the younger Davies vowing never to return.
"It depends on the deal," Davies says with a hopeful grin. "I think he'd come around.
"You can never duplicate the Kinks. Often people used to come see us play for what might go wrong on stage rather than what would go right.
"I miss the daily camaraderie. I grew up with the band. They've gone on and have got their own lives. Me, I'm the only one in the band that doesn't have a life."
But Davies is committed to the new work. At the Wiltern, the new songs mingled easily with the hits. There were emotional flourishes in "The Real World" and a lighter touch, while the crankier "No One Listen" was crafted from warm, jazzy rhythms and urgent acoustic guitar chords by Davies and a powerful solo from guitarist Milton McDonald.
Kinks hits still dominated the night. Fans stood for the buoyant, theatrical "Sunny Afternoon" and roared during "Lola," now and forever a rowdy audience sing-along. Davies and his four-piece band also reached back to the harder riffs and dreamy passages of "Tired of Waiting for You. "
After this tour, Davies hopes to complete an album of collaborations with other artists, including Green Day. And this summer, he has two gigs in London where he'll bring a 90-voice choir, still singing the old songs among the new.
"As one gets older, you get a little embarrassed saying girls drive you mad," he says with a familiar smirk. "But it shows that time hasn't made you more of an expert. She's still driving me mad, and I haven't found her yet."