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The Kinks get the tribute treatment at Fools Brigade benefit

When it comes to The Kinks, it's time to revise your British Invasion primers and rock 'n' roll history manuals.

For years, the band Pete Townshend once called the "quintessential English" act occupied an odd middle ground in rock's back pages. They sold millions of records, collected Top 40 hits in three different decades (over 30 U.S. and U.K. combined), and were 1990 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees. They're also typically listed on the big British Invasion marquee right there with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who.

But The Kinks' name was always at the bottom of that bill, weighed down by an unseen asterisk suggesting, "Great, but not quite as great." That's one reason The Kinks also enjoy the kind of cult-band cachet normally reserved for over-looked bands with time-resistant catalogs like The Velvet Underground.

"We were considered the third stringers of the British Invasion," The Kinks' chief songwriter Ray Davies once told Rolling Stone.

But time is being kind to The Kinks. In recent years their influence -- particularly among musicians -- is catching up with all but The Beatles among their British Invasion counterparts. And whereas The Kinks' legacy used to be the provenance of Brit bands from The Jam to Elvis Costello to Oasis to Blur and Pulp, today's hit-makers and buzz bands on both sides of the pond -- among them Franz Ferdinand, The Shins, The New Pornographers and The Broken West -- openly salute The Kinks' DNA coursing through their music.

The Kinks will get some local love at the 4th annual Fools Brigade benefit at the Visulite Theatre on Saturday, March 31. "Give the People What They Want: A Night of The Kinks," features members from 16 cream-of-the-crop Charlotte rock bands digging into The Kinks' songbook to raise funds for the Charlotte Charter Schools Music Program.

Benefit organizer Bruce Hazel of the Fence Lions happily concedes that the tribute's title is, "as much for the musicians as the audience" -- a sentiment echoed by many participants.

"I love The Beatles and the Stones, but The Kinks are the British Invasion band I tend to go back to the most," says Mark Lynch (David Childers & the Modern Don Juans, Lou Ford).

"That's what appeals to me the most about The Kinks, is their underdog status," says La ChoCha Loca's Jason Racino.

The Kinks didn't exactly begin their careers as underdogs. Brothers Ray and Dave Davies formed the band (first known as the Ravens) in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill in 1963, along with bassist Peter Quaife and drummer Mick Avory. Like most of their Brit peers, they were infatuated with what was dubbed "Maximum R&B" from America, and scored mega-hits in both the United States and the United Kingdom with distortion-heavy, proto-punk like "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night."

But it was during the creative cauldron of the mid- to late-'60s that The Kinks -- and Ray Davies in particular -- veered far from the paths of their peers. While The Beatles sought inspiration from the maharaja in India, The Rolling Stones from Appalachia and the Delta, and The Who from the marriage of rock and opera, The Kinks found everything they needed down at the corner pub, in the Fleet Street dailies, and in Britain's storied Music Hall and pastoral traditions.

"They were watching the world and writing about it rather than promoting an agenda," says The Houstons' Justin Faircloth.

Part of the band's turn inward was purely practical; The Kinks were banned from touring the United States from 1965-68. So while their contemporaries were suckling at music's biggest money teat and releasing records intricately linked with that era's zeitgeist, The Kinks embraced quaint homegrown traditions like Brit-folk, Music Hall marches and Skiffle shuffles. And for their efforts, they suffered steadily declining sales, drink-fueled nervous breakdowns, and infamous sibling rows. Blessed with prickly personas to boot, The Kinks practically invented the bite-the-hand-that-feeds blueprint that would later become stock-in-trade for punk rockers and bands like The Replacements.

But away from the spotlight's brightest glare, Ray Davies and The Kinks turned in a string of classic long players from 1966-71: Face to Face, Something Else by The Kinks, The Village Green Preservation Society, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), Lola Vs. Powerman & the Money-Go-Round, Pt. 1, and Muswell Hillbillies.

The records were loaded with biting satires and complex narratives as prototypically British as Turner's fog, afternoon tea, and upper class in-breeding -- a recent essay called Ray Davies "The Greatest Rock Star of the 19th Century." Yet the songs were whimsical or wistful enough -- and the themes so universal -- that they transcend their provincial genesis. Ray Davies was, for instance, among the first to see through the '60s' solipsistic veneer to its dark underbelly in 1966 songs like "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" and the hipster harangue "Dedicated Follower of Fashion." There were also lacerating social critiques ("Well Respected Man," "David Watts"), sorrow-shot ballads ("Waterloo Sunset," "Oklahoma, USA") and nostalgia laments both sincere ("Village Green Preservation") and, well, less sincere ("Victoria").

It was The Kinks' high point; even if it lacked the breadth of The Beatles, the Stones' sensuality and chops, or The Who's raw power, it was every bit as fertile and unique. The Kinks soldiered on for another two decades with slowly diminishing returns and the occasional left-field hit like "Come Dancing," an early MTV staple. Ironically, just as the band's star set in the U.K., it rose in the States, earning The Kinks some overdue dosh for their golden years and new generations of fans -- like those taking part in the Fool's Brigade benefit.

"One thing I do know about The Kinks -- they made an art form out of ripping themselves off and making fun of themselves," says Poprocket's Jay Garrigan, who first heard The Kinks on his wrist-radio as a teen. "Like many bands to come after them, their caustic approach made the songs rock that much more."

The 4th annual Fools Brigade Benefit takes place Saturday, March 31, at the Visulite. Tickets: $10. The music kicks off at 9 p.m. sharp-ish and features performers or full-band sets from: the Alternative Champs, Babyshaker, Buschovsky, La ChoCha Loca, the Delancey Street Band, the Fence Lions, Goldenrods, the Houstons, Les Dirt Clods, Lou Ford, Poprocket, Pyramid, Raised By Wolves, Secondhand Stories, Snagglepuss, and the Virginia Reel.

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