Rocking the Pool: Wilko Johnson at Hampton, UK
There can be few musicians more aware of their own mortality than Wilko Johnson. This iconic English R&B rocker was given a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2013, did what he thought was his farewell tour early the following year, then, after a complicated operation, was given the all clear. Back recording and on the road, he rocked up last night in the ‘burbs of west London as the headline act at a summer outdoor show.
The setting was perfect; small, a happy crowd of locals up for a good evening picnicking by the pool with some of England’s finest R&B: Nine Below Zero and Wilko Johnson. Openers NBZ were formed in 1979 with two of their founders, Dennis Greaves and Mark Feltham, still the core of the band today. Their high octane live shows became legendary and while still based on the blues, they play at a more modest pace now with a bigger-band feel, having added some sublime brass. Highlights were “Riding on the L&N” and they really pulled together their wide talents for “Call it Stormy Monday.”
The crowd duly razzed up, sun setting over suburbia, Wilko Johnson, Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe took the stage and commenced a set that felt from where I was standing (at the front) no less intense than Dr. Feelgood at their peak. Johnson looks nothing short of menacing, dressed all in black and wielding his matching (with a bit of red) Telecaster with venom. Johnson’s chopping picking and strumming style allows him to play rhythm and lead at the same time. He is constantly on the move, almost frenetically, his trademark duck walk and shimmy bringing cheers for that alone. Grimacing all the time his eyes bore through anyone looking at him for more than a few seconds. It’s a manic effort, and he’s just turned 70! Someone half that age would struggle to keep up.
The band keep up though. Bassist Norman Watt-Roy, a long time collaborator, and drummer Dylan Howe drive a tough rhythm line to keep Johnson’s speed up. The effect is not of chaos but quite the opposite, these masters of their genre keep tight control of the tempo, never letting the pressure boil over but just “All Right,” one of the opening numbers. “If You Want Me You Got Me” laid down a marker. “Dr Dupree” slowed it down slightly, but still with that Johnson staccato. Then up a couple of gears for the old Dr. Feelgood classic, “Going Back Home.” More Feelgood came with “Roxette,” all lapped up by an audience that appeared to be dominated by proper Wilko fans. Maybe they just made the most noise.
This was turning out to be one of those nights that would exceed high expectations when things went badly wrong. Dueling away on “Everybody’s Carrying a Gun,” playing some lovely bass runs with evident enjoyment, Watt-Roy called for a towel then disappeared off the stage. He tried to return but when the guy wearing a headset and high viz looks like he’s taking over you knew all is not right. Johnson seemed oblivious for a bit but when he saw the roadies frantically signaling he’s without a bass player he abruptly brought the show to an end.
This was a very sad and premature close to an excellent performance. Wilko Johnson’s website announced today that Watt-Roy had suffered a minor heart attack and was taken to hospital. “He is recovering well and will be kept in for a day or so.”
Just as we celebrate the recuperation of a great man in Wilko Johnson, another great man is hit. We wish Norman Watt-Roy a swift and full recovery and look forward to seeing him back in action soon.