Wilko Johnson (SCG)
Tuesday 26th September
The Royal Albert Hall, London
John Peter Wilkinson, better known as the legendary British guitar hero and founding member of the formidable Dr. Feelgood, Wilko Johnson turned seventy in July this year. To celebrate this milestone the rather grand Royal Albert Hall in posh Kensington was booked to mark this special occasion. An ambitious choice of venue for a Pub Rock band! It is also advertised as the thirtieth anniversary of the Wilko Johnson Band, but I am almost certain it is more like thirty-five! It has been forty years since Wilko left Dr. Feelgood, going onto form the Solid Senders and then a spell with Ian Dury and The Blockheads before forming the Wilko Johnson band with bassist Norman Watt-Roy.
Despite constant gigging through the years, Wilko's resurgence into the wider public conscience began with the release of Julian Temple's brilliant documentary film 'Oil City Confidential' in 2009. The film told the fascinating story of the formation and development of Dr. Feelgood into one of the UK’s best ever R&B Punk bands. Wilko was clearly the star of the film, his eccentric charisma and eloquent delivery shining throughout. A true British institution and national treasure if ever there was one.
Devastatingly Wilko was diagnosed with what was believed to be terminal pancreatic cancer in 2012 and given only months to live! A farewell tour of theatre sized venues was announced, with all dates selling out in quick fire time. Those gigs proved how much Wilko is loved and respected by music fans old and new, people who had almost forgotten who he was came out of the woodwork in force. These gigs were very emotional and poignant, with many grown men and woman crying buckets of tears! One of the farewell concerts at KoKo in Camden, London, has been immortalized on DVD.
With his life clock ticking away and nearing its final alarm call, Wilko got to work quick sharp on his collaboration album 'Going Back Home' with The Who's Roger Daltrey, an album of Dr. Feelgood and Wilko Johnson Band songs, as well as a cover of Bob Dylan's 1965 single 'Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?'. Released on March 2014, it was Wilko's first major chart success since Dr. Feelgood's number one live album 'Stupidity' in 1976.
Miraculously after a major operation in 2013 the extremely large 3kg neuroendocrine tumour was removed from his stomach and he went on to make a full recovery and is now cancer free. The excellent and fascinating Julian Temple documentary ‘The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson’ was released in 2015 and follows Wilko’s amazing journey from being diagnosed with the cancer to his life changing operation and ultimate cure. This documentary further cements Wilko’s captivating screen presence, demonstrating his astounding knowledge of literature and Astronomy, and shines a spotlight on his uplifting positivity after his diagnosis and his subsequent miraculous recovering.
Wilko continues to tour and due to his renewed public profile he tends to play larger venues now, which in some ways is a shame as nothing beats seeing Wilko live at The 100 Club in London or the Half Moon in Putney! In recent years he has also supported bands such as The Who, Status Quo and The Stranglers. Wilko published his first autobiography, 'Looking Back at Me', co-authored with Zoe Howe in May 2012. Wilko's latest album is 'Keep It To Myself - The Best Of Wilko Johnson', which came out in February this year through Chess and Universal Records. He also released the paperback edition of his second autobiography 'Don't You Leave Me Here'. At the Q Awards on 22nd October 2014, Wilko accepted the "Icon Award". As well as constant gigging and recording, Wilko has also done a bit of acting, having starred in the first and second season of 'Game Of Thrones' as the mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne.
Tonight at the Royal Albert Hall, Wilko was joined by long time band member, also an original Blockhead, bassist Norman Watt-Roy, and drummer Dylan Howe, also once a Blockhead and son of Steve Howe from Yes. The stage lay out and lighting was felicitous, creating an almost intimate setting in the rather spacious grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall. A good size crowd filled the majority of the just over five thousand seater hall with most of the seats in the arena and the stalls being occupied, with much less bodies visible in the circle. The overall sound was quite good despite the cavernous nature of the building. Rock bands sometimes struggle to get the sound balance right at this venue, it being better suited for staging classical music recitals.
When the lights dimmed it was straight down to business, the trusty black telecaster with red scratch plate at the ready, red springy coiled guitar lead plugged in, a quick ’Good evening’ and on with show! The band were slightly ragged at times but mostly locked in tight and steaming red hot! Wilko’s bulging wide staring eyes were fixed straight ahead, hyperactively skittering all over the stage, periodically machine gunning the audience with his guitar.
Wilko’s choppy lead/rhythm guitar playing style was inspired and emulated from that of Mick Green of The Pirates, a formidable guitarist who unfortunately died in 2010. Mick also co-wrote ‘Going Back Home’ from the 1975 Dr. Feelgood album ‘Malpractice’ with Wilko.
Wilko may not win awards for best vocalist in the world but at least his raspy voice has character and is distinctive. The set list hasn’t changed much over the years but all the greats are played, kicking off with ‘All Right’ from the 1981 album ‘Ice On The Motorway’, then straight into ‘If You Want Me, You've Got Me’ from the 1988 ‘Barbed Wire Blues’ album. The brilliant and exotic ‘Dr. Dupree’ from the 1978 ‘Solid Senders’ album was up next with some tasteful eastern style arpeggios from Wilko. A fine trio of Dr. Feelgood classics quickly followed, ‘Going Back Home’ from the 1975 ‘Malpractice’ album, ‘Roxette’ from the 1975 ‘Down By The Jetty’ album and the title track of the 1977 album ‘Sneakin' Suspicion’. A few more regularly played Wilko band songs were played in quick succession, including ‘Keep on Loving You’ and ‘Some Kind Of Hero’ from the 1998 album ‘Going Back Home’, ‘When I'm Gone’ and ‘Cairo Blues’ from the ‘Ice On The Motorway’ album before another classic Dr. Feelgood song, ‘Paradise’ from the ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ album. The band get to stretch out and jam in the middle of ‘Everybody's Carrying a Gun’, an awesome track from the ‘Solid Senders’ album, with Wilko indulging in some guitar heroics and extended guitar call and response workouts with Norman.
Norman Watt-Roy is definitely one of the greatest bass players ever and a great foil for Wilko. He gives it all and plays out his skin at every gig, bouncing of Wilko’s staccato guitar phrases. The bass practically leads most of the time and fills the spaces with deep Funk lines and harmonizing phrases. Norman makes the Wilko Johnson band exceptional! On the 15th of July this year Norman had a mini heart attack on stage at the Hampton Pool concert in Middlesex! The set had to be cut short! Thankfully Norman is now fighting fit and back delivering the goods!
The final stretch brought us a pair of top-notch vintage Dr. Feelgood gems, ‘Back in the Night’ from the ‘Malpractice’ album and ‘She Does It Right’ from the ‘Down By The Jetty’ album.
It felt odd sitting down at a Wilko Johnson gig, but that’s what ninety-nine percent of the audience did for the majority of the set, it’s that kind of venue! It was only by the last song of the main set that the audience atmosphere kicked into gear when one brave punter stood up half way back in the arena floor and made his way purposefully and confidently to the front urging people to stand up along the way. Gradually the front row stood up and by mid-way through ‘She Does It Right’ everybody was up on their feet and letting lose! Unfortunately the gig was over all too soon, and just as the atmosphere was elevating too! Luckily we get two encores though, Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ featuring support act John Cooper Clarke on second guitar, although I’m fairly certain the guitar was not plugged in! Then finally we get Bobby Troup’s ‘Route 66’ to finish. You can clearly see that Wilko feeds of the warmth coming from the audience as the energy intensifies.
A stellar performance from the lads, but let’s get back to smaller size gigs at venues such as The 100 Club London and the Half Moon Putney. These are the type of venues where Rock ‘n’ Roll really lives.
Steven C. Gilbert (photos courtesy of Lawrence Harvey)