Back in the Night with Wilko Johnson
“All Through The City” suddenly started thumping from the stage. Terri Hooley must have finished spinning records as part of the support for the gig, and Wilko must have landed on stage and just started blasting it out. I’d been talking on the way to the bar and hadn’t noticed, until it was noticeable.
He’d cancelled last year’s gig. Tickets for his slot at Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival 2014 were in the process of being snapped up when he’d had to cancel, and we’d all assumed the worst. Bloody Hell. Gutted. But who knew? Who knew this duck-walking miracle was going to beat those odds and come back to shake his guitar at us. Fuck you cancer.
He’s an historical figure you see; rumour has it he might be a new national treasure. We need to go back to when it started, back to when Wilko Johnson was guitarist with this pub rock/R&B band from Canvey Island in Essex called Dr Feelgood. Wilko duck walked and stared menacingly through his gigs, driving and chopping his rhythm and blues right through to the back of the net. By the mid-70s, punk was the young pretender to the prog-rock crown. Enter stage left Dr Feelgood with their uncooked ballsy blues, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll – fuelled with a punk attitude – before it was known as a punk attitude. Dr Feelgood was a catalyst, an important pre-cursor to the music genre, sub culture, media label, movement, era, and ideology that was punk. Wilko is an historical figure you see.
Later there were fall outs and Wilko went his own way. Tonight however, nearly 40 years later, the stage was steeped in musical history. Notwithstanding Dr Feelgood, all three musicians up there also have a past and/or present with (Ian Dury &) The Blockheads. Drummer Dylan Howe heads his own Dylan Howe Quintet, but his heritage starts with being the eldest son of Steve Howe from the band ‘Yes’. (‘Yes’ describe themselves as “Pioneers of progressive rock”. The prog rock that punk usurped. It’s funny how things go round and round). Bassist Norman Watt-Roy’s session musicianship bounces from Nick Lowe to Roger Daltrey, and way beyond, releasing his own jazz album Faith & Grace a couple of years ago..
There were plenty of household essential Dr Feelgood numbers – “The More I Give”, “Going Back Home”, “Back In The Night” and of course “Roxette”, which brought on the start of the duck walk and the guitar based machine gun threats. The crowd were lapping it up, and less well known later tracks like “Everybody’s Carrying a Gun” hooked us in. There was some particularly long, pulsing, elastic bass solo too, which lost some people, but I was captured.
“It’s all to do with the blood sugar” he told us as he drank more orange juice. “They took this tumour out, and a lot of other things, so I could keel over at any minute.” Then without pause he ran straight into “Paradise”. He drove that riff home, and then, jerking and stalling, he reversed and drove it home again. His face had a pained concentration look, and Roy had gone all middle earth on that bass.
His voice wasn’t great but his guitar compensated. Like two guitars as he chopped the riffs, that signature sound of rhythm and lead guitar going on simultaneously from his solitary Fender Telecaster held true. Then he took a break, resting his hands laconically on the guitar while Howe launched into some serious minutes of drum solo. Wilko watched, nodding, smiling, and then hurled himself into the next song.
Encore “Bye Bye Johnny” had Wilko playing the guitar behind his head, and generally all on stage playing what they play to the extreme. “Here comes the train” he said, “listen for that train”. Howe drove in a train track rhythm as Roy grounded it all, stopping it from derailing. Then, with a “thank you very much” they were gone. Nice one.
Photo credit: Bernie McAllister/Argyll Images. Video credit: furiousox