Wilko Johnson (M)
Tuesday 26th September 2017
The Royal Albert Hall, London
If you are going to have a party, have it big. And it doesn’t get much bigger than the Royal Albert Hall. Whilst the 5,200 odd seats weren’t all taken, the Victorian concert hall was a busy place to be for the celebration of Wilko Johnson, his life (literally), his 70th birthday and the 30th anniversary of the Wilko Johnson band. The Spartan stage was minimalist in stark contrast to the grandeur of its surroundings. A drum kit, some small amps and a mic stand were forlornly huddled together in the centre of the stage that is regularly home to the great and the good of the musical world, It was a sixty’s pub or club scene backed by the grandeur of ‘Father’ Henry Willis pipe organ, once the largest in the world, looking over them like a grandfather over his grandchildren.
To celebrate his life, Wilko Johnson had invited an eclectic group to entertain a faithful following in the Pub Rock style that he has become famous for. First up, and with no suggestion of nepotism whatsoever, were Eight Round Rapid, a 4 piece Blues come Mod band containing one Johnson Junior on bass. With sharp suits and even sharper shoes, this clean cut quartet opened the proceedings with a short but fun set of Blues with twangy telecaster sixty vibes mixed with mouth harp melodies. Gone was the Royal Albert Hall and in its place was the small clubs of the 60’s replete with bouffants and Brylcream. Just needed some Lambrettas to complete the scene. It could have been Wilko himself up there 50 years ago. Probably the largest arena these lads have played, but they weren’t overawed by the occasion.
So how do you follow that? With a French one man band. Obviously. Did I mention it was an eclectic night? The minimalism ramped up a notch as the unassuming looking Benjamin Tehoval, looking more like a subway busker in his shirt of many colours than an artist at Mr. Clapton's regular residence, proceeded to entertain the crowds with a mix of Folk, Country and Blues whilst accompanying himself on guitar, mouth organ drums and high hat cymbal. He has a strong solid voice, with a touch of the Loudon Wainwrights. You can get a cream for that. He entertained with a set that got the toes tapping yet was a gentle and pleasing to the ear and mind. It was no surprise that he got a standing ovation after his farewell track, a cover of Dylans 'How Does It Feel'. He would have been there longer if he hadn’t been moved on by the stage manager. RAH has its rules you know.
So, where next? How about a bit of irreverent modern Punk poetry? Dr. John Cooper Clarke is a bit of a phenomenon these days. The once underground voice of the people (with a strong Salford lilt) has become mainstream. He’s been on The One Show for heaven’s sake! But unlike some of his Punk peers, he hasn’t toned down his act. The One Show would have been hard pressed to find a couple minutes of broadcastable material from the hours delights we heard. Self-deprecating but as cutting of the world as you would expect in a world that is in need of a snip or two, Clarke’s opening rhyme was a guest list recitation that was as amusing as it was bizarre. The fast tongued, rhyming genius them proceeded to enthral the audience with rhymes on such subjects as Questions I can’t answer, Existentialism, Hire car benefits, why he should ‘Get back on drugs you fat fuck…’, Elvis Presley, Beasley Street, I wanna be yours, Chimpanzee butlers, motorists and why he loves his wife. Did I mention eclectic… He left to a standing ovation but only after reciting his final encore, at the specific request of an audience member of his famous ‘valentine poem in reverse’ – Twat. What entertainment.
With a seamless shuffle of amps and tech, the birthday boy took to the stage in his customary black outfit with matching black and red Telecaster. Alongside Norman Watt-Roy (bass), Dylan Howe (drums), they are The Wilko Johnson band, celebrating 30 years together. Wilko is famous for many things – he was an integral part of Doctor Feelgood and Ian Dury’s Blockheads, has appeared in various acting roles in such luminary productions as Game of Thrones and Oil City Confidential, and his successful battle against terminal pancreatic cancer. But it is as a guitarist and showman that he has made his name. Hugely influential for his guitar playing style, his influence was felt in bands up and down the country, notably in the Punk movement (Joe Strummer of the Clash bought a Telecaster after seeing Wilko play). Heavily influenced by legendary guitarist Mick Green from 60's rockers Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, Wilko employs a finger-style, chop-chord strumming action that allows for chords and lead guitar to be played at the same time, giving a fluency and a distinctive sound very unlike the cleaner swat of a pick. In later years, his health issues have pushed him into new projects including 2014’s amazing collaboration with Roger Daltrey on the hit album 'Going Back Home'. The cavernous RAH seemed to shrink to an intimate club as the trio launched into a string of Wilko classics. Wilko strummed his jangly bright sounding telecaster whilst hopping around the stage in his trademark jerky strut, stabbing at the audience with the pointy end of his beloved fender then seemingly springing back under the tension of his coiled guitar cable. The supposedly recuperating septuagenarian showed no signs of either as he pranced around the stage like the teenager still inside his head. It's Rock and Roll, it's Punk, it's Blues, it's fun. He is ably assisted in that department by ex-Blockheads Watt-Roy. What a dynamo that man is. He doesn’t stop rocking for one moment during the entire set and provides the strong irresistible rhythm behind Wilko’s cutting lead. Also driven by the tight Howe on drums, the years of playing clearly show the passion these three friends have for their art. The set was a mix of Wilko’s many years in the business with track’s like 'Roxette', 'Going Back Home' and 'Paradise'. But as the set progressed it became more of a jam with friends as each song became a longer and longer with improvisation and solos from each of them. And the crowd loved it. Average ages were somewhat high and the auspicious surroundings favoured the seating position (as probably did the arthritis and lumbago) but that didn’t stop the clapping, cheering and dancing in the aisles as the set closed with the classics 'Back In The Night' and 'She Does It Right'.
A rightly demanded encore saw him return to the stage with Dr. John joining them on guitar (another of his many talents) for a birthday rendition of 'Johnny Be Good' and 'Route 66' ending the night on an appropriately Rock and Roll theme. With an emotional dedication of the night to a fellow cancer patient, Wilko left the stage to huge applause and much cheering. Hopefully to meet up again with Mr. Daltrey for another round of recording. So that’s Roger Wilko and not out then.
Mother (photos courtesy of Lawrence Harvey)