Monday, 15 September 2014

13/10/2013 Wilko Johnson @ Koko

Legend is a much over-used and devalued word these days. However, tonight we see one for real. Wilko Johnson first came to people's attention as the manic guitarist in Dr Feelgood - the pub-rockers from Canvey Island. They are still doing the rounds today, in spite of having no original members since the mid 1990's... Wilko's unique percussive guitar style and dangerous stage presence made him stand out from the crowd, and after his departure from the band in 1977 he formed the Solid Senders, and later became a member of Ian Dury's Blockheads. Throughout all this his 'man in black' image and distinctive guitar style remained unchanged - as they do to this day.

Although he continued playing the club and festival circuit his profile was never that high. That changed in 2009 when Wilko took part in Julian Temple's remarkable Dr Feelgood documentary 'Oil City Confidential' - if you haven't seen this film then make sure you do! An acting part in Game Of Thrones followed and things seemed to be taking an upward turn for this Essex eccentric. Then just before Christmas in 2012 he was given the news that he had terminal pancreatic cancer.

Wilko Johnson was given ten months to live. He embarked on a 'Farewell tour' and after the last two dates were cancelled due to illness things weren't looking good... However, some other appearances have taken place at festivals in July and August. Wilko played two nights at Koko in Camden as part of his farewell tour earlier this year, but those dates sold out before I could get a ticket and it looked like I had missed my chance to see this unique guitarist one last time. Suddenly two more dates at Koko were announced, and this time I managed to get a ticket. I'm really glad I did.

Obviously there is an element of sadness in the background as I know it's probably the last time I will ever see Wilko Johnson play, but that aside there is nothing sad about this show - it's a celebration of his life. Of course, regardless of his health Wilko is no spring chicken these days so he can't be expected to perform like he did twenty or thirty years ago - but this looks far from being like a man on his last legs! He is still playing great, and it's obvious he is still enjoying himself too - which could be what is keeping him going. You can feel the love for the man in the air tonight, and I'm sure he can too.
Wilko's trademark moves are still present even if he doesn't hurtle from one side of the stage to the other as if on wheels quite as fast as he used to - he is 66 years old after all. His guitar style is so unique that even if you could hear but not see him you'd know exactly who was on stage. He uses that famous Telecaster like a weapon as he careers about the stage 'machine-gunning' the crowd. Playing bass in Wilko's band for many years now is his fellow 'Blockhead' Norman Watt-Roy - an amazing musician in his own right. In fact I'd describe him as 'playing like a Demon' tonight. I'm actually starting to wonder if he's made the same infamous pact with the Devil that certain six string players are reputed to have made - his whole stature and stage presence tonight actually looks demonic. Seriously. No one is going to up-stage Wilko Johnson though.
The set includes Dr Feelgood classics from the days when Wilko was still in the band, as well as stuff from his solo career and the odd old standard. There's some classic slow blues as well as hard R&B, but it's the Feelgood stuff people want to hear the most - 'Back In The Night', 'Going Back Home', 'Roxette', and 'She Does It Right' all go down a storm! For me, the latter song has always been a particular favourite and is almost worth the price of admission alone - if he just plays that one song I'll be going home happy!
With the inevitable encore Wilko Johnson plays for about an hour and a half without flagging at all. As I said, the gig is a celebration, but there is pathos too - the extended cover of Chuck Berry's classic 'Bye Bye Johnny' almost brings a tear to the eye as Wilko waves 'Bye Bye' at the crowd and they all wave Bye Bye back at him... Maybe these two nights in Camden really are his 'Farewell' gigs as the 'Farewell' tour earlier this year didn't prove to be quite that? According to the doctors Wilko shouldn't still be here - leading to the man himself recently making what must be the quote of the year about playing more farewell gigs -“If I ain’t dead by the end of the year it’s gonna start getting embarrassing!” He ain't finished yet either - he's appearing as a guest at some gigs on Norman Watt-Roy's current tour and recording an album with Roger Daltrey. Maybe we haven't seen the last of Wilko Johnson quite yet...

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