I first saw Wilko Johnson play guitar when I was 16 years old. He was guest on a BBC show called *Rockschool that taught impressionable teenagers such as myself how to play in a band. The programme aired in the mid 1980s – long after the peak of interest had waned in his band Dr Feelgood (a band I was only aware of peripherally anyway, and I’d certainly never heard of Johnson). He explained his technique – a technique that famously made him sound as if he was playing rhythm and lead guitar at the same time. He made it look and sound ridiculously easy – something I found it most certainly wasn’t when I tried it myself.
That minute or so of TV sparked an interest in Wilko Johnson that I’ve retained for 30 years. Through the 90s, I saw him play in pubs that contained barely a hundred or so diehard fans, all delighting in his eccentric stage presence. Watching him manically dart left and right; his red, coiled lead expanding and contracting as he went, was extremely enjoyable – but it was balanced by an undeniable undercurrent of pathos. Just why was such an intrinsic element of one of the most significant bands of the 1970s, playing to such tiny audiences?
Johnson’s faithful, but comparatively tiny fan base remained that way until the release in 2010 of Julien Temple’s Oil City Confidential; a film which told the story of Dr Feelgood’s rise from the petrochemical sprawl of Canvey Island ‘Oil City’, to the heights of making no. 1 albums. In the absence of Lee Brilleaux, (Dr Feelgood’s growling front man succumbed to cancer in 1994), Johnson’s eccentricities shone brighter than the flame stacks on Canvey, and a new audience was carved. Wilko’s profile was further elevated when he was cast to play the mute executioner Ilyn Payne in the first two seasons of HBOs Game of Thrones.
So, after three decades of comparative obscurity, Wilko Johnson’s star was definitely on the rise. And then, in January 2013, Johnson’s management advised he had terminal pancreatic cancer and around 10 months to live.
The story from here is now well documented. Johnson eschewed the chemotherapy he was told would only give him a couple of extra months and instead embarked on a ‘farewell’ tour that ironically saw him playing in bigger venues that he had seen in nearly 40 years. I attended his farewell shows at a packed KOKO, Camden Town in March 2013. Exchanging waves of goodbye with him during his encore of Bye Bye Johnny (Johnson’s birth name is John Wilkinson – he transposed it to give him a stage name people could chant) was a viscerally emotive experience. He continued to play for as long as he felt well and in the space of a week in the autumn of 2013 recorded Going Back Home with Roger Daltrey. The record entered the UK album chart at no 3 – the highest position for Daltrey since 1981 and the first chart position for Johnson since 1976. As Spinal Tap would say, “Death sells”. The success of the album led to a performance by Daltrey and Johnson at the Shepherds Bush Empire in February 2014 that sold out in minutes and had tickets changing hands on eBay for hundreds of pounds.
But 13 months after his diagnosis, the one question everyone was quietly asking behind their hands was why Wilko Johnson was still alive. One person who asked louder than most was Charlie Chan, an eminent cancer specialist and part time music photographer that knew Johnson and convinced him to speak to the pancreatic cancer team at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. Following favourable tests, in April 2014, Johnson underwent an 11-hour operation to have a 3kg tumour, his pancreas, his spleen, part of his stomach, and his small and large intestines removed – and he is now free of cancer. As he said when accepting the 2014 Q Icon Award: “The moral of this story is, you never know what’s going to happen”.
And so we come to April 2015 and Wilko Johnson makes a triumphant return to the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire as part of his aptly named Still Kicking tour. There is a very full house and expectant crowd to welcome him back. First up, we get a support set from Southend band Eight Rounds Rapid – something of a fixture, as they were also present during the farewell tour that ultimately wasn’t. There’s something vaguely familiar about them. Singer David Alexander wears a suit and looks like he could start a fight with his own reflection – kind of like Lee Brilleaux. He holds his microphone with two hands – kind of like Lee Brilleaux. However, unlike Brilleaux, he also blankly stares into the middle distance and there’s precious little interaction with the audience. It’s hard to tell if this is cool nonchalance or if he is in fact terrified. Meanwhile, stage right there’s a guitarist with a Fender Telecaster and some very recognisable mannerisms. He skitters left and right, he plays with his fingers, not with a pick, he sort of plays rhythm and lead at the same time and he even has a coiled red lead that expands and contracts as he moves. Fortunately, the guitarist is Simon Johnson, Wilko’s son. If it had been anybody else, he’d have been sued for infringement of Wilko’s Intellectual Property Rights.
ERR play an enjoyable set and are well appreciated but there’s no doubt we’re all here for one reason only. Thirty minutes later, that reason emerges into the light with his long-term partners Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Dylan Howe (son of Steve, drums). The band fire up a set list that has remained practically unchanged for years, but nobody seems to mind. All Through The City rings out first. At the solo, Wilko starts running back and forth as he does and the crowd go mad. Up-tempo numbers If You Want Me You Got Me, and The More I Give are dispatched with alacrity and then there’s the relative calm of Dr Dupree – a song that traditionally affords Wilko the opportunity to demonstrate his duck walking skills.
One thing that remains constant is the pounding rhythm generated by Dylan Howe and Norman Watt-Roy. Both played in Ian Dury and the Blockheads and both are excellent. Watt-Roy, who generates so much heat when he plays that he could be classed as a small power station, is recognised as one of the best bass players on the planet and he gets two specific opportunities to shine tonight. In When I’m Gone, Norman pounds out a bassline whilst Wilko struts about giving paranoid stares and pretends to machine gun the crowd with his guitar. In Everybody’s Carrying A Gun, there is an extended bass and drum solo that has Wilko looking on humbly from the sidelines. They really are an excellent band.
It’s expecting quite a bit to think a 67 year old who has recently undergone radical surgery will play a very long set, and after around an hour we know we’re getting near the end when Wilko says (as he always does): “I’ll leave you with something I wrote in those glorious seventies”. The band play Dr Feelgood classics Back In The Night and She Does It Right back to back and leave to rapturous applause.
When they return, we’re still treated to Wilko’s interpretation of Bye Bye Johnny (a version that has more ups and downs than the New York skyline) and Johnson still waves goodbye to the crowd with a beaming grin in just the same way he did when we thought we’d never see him again. I guess it’s lost a bit of it’s emotional impact, but at least now what he sees in return are reflected smiles rather than grown men wiping tears from their eyes.
Who knows for how long Wilko will still be able to do this? Based on the energy levels expended tonight, I don’t count on it ending any time soon.
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Photography and Review by Simon Reed. Wilko Johnson – O2 Shepherds Bush Empire – 26/04/15.
The full set of images are also here:http://rockshot.photoshelter.com/gallery/Wilko-Johnson/G0000nQ2mMYt4Qro
Simon has his own great photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk
*Wilko Johnson guitar method on Rockschool