Unless you’re a fan of Game Of Thrones, or else otherwise just ‘of a certain age’, it’s unlikely you’d have heard of Wilko Johnson until 2013 – when it was disclosed he was suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer. This news, or more specifically his reaction to it (embarking on a farewell tour and a Gold selling album collaboration with Roger Daltrey) put him in the public consciousness in a manner he’d not seen since the early 1970s. Back then, he was the wide-eyed, amphetamine fuelled guitarist of ‘Thames Delta’ R&B band Dr Feelgood and he could be seen skittering left and right on stages the world over… but Wilko left the Feelgoods in 1977 and following a brief position stage right with Ian Dury And The Blockheads, he gradually slipped into obscurity.
The eighties, nineties and noughties were spent in pubs and clubs playing to a small but devoted fan base – and I count myself in that number. I’ve lost count of the number of Wilko gigs I’ve seen whilst lamenting the fact he was no longer a household name. Fast forward close to thirty years and three things happened to raise his public profile. Firstly, he was cast as the mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne in Game of Thrones. Secondly, his quirky character was exposed to a wider audience following his appearance in the 2009 Julien Temple film documenting the rise of Dr Feelgood, Oil City Confidential. Thirdly, came the cancer.
What happened next is now widely documented. Johnson outlived the diagnosis, which proved to be wrong. The cancer was in fact operable and following a successful procedure to remove it, Wilko is now back doing what he does best: strumming a Telecaster and performing to crowds. The only difference is that now the crowds are a lot bigger, as manifested by last nights’ performance in a packed Royal Albert Hall – a gig held to celebrate thirty years of his own band and seventy years on the planet. As Ian Faith, fictional tour manager in the film This Is Spinal Tap would say: “Death (or in this case, near death) Sells”.
The primary support at this most special of gigs came in the form of another highly entertaining character, the ‘Punk Poet’ Dr John Cooper Clarke. I’d never seen Clarke perform before. As somebody who has invested time watching T’Pau in concert, being a Clarke virgin to this point was an aberration that within five minutes of him starting had me seriously pondering what the hell I’d been doing with my life. Soon we were delighting in poems about hire cars, urban degeneration, and the perils of weight gain when you’re no longer controlled by narcotics: Get Back On Drugs You Fat F***. There was even a poem about the trials of hiring a razor-wielding chimpanzee butler. The words were delivered with a cadence and velocity that would make Clarke an excellent horse race announcer were he not already an excellent performance poet. He was bloody funny as well: “What’s the difference between a Jehovah’s Witness and a Lada? You can close the door on a Jehovah’s Witness”. Every so often, the word ‘Twat’ was yelled from the auditorium. Turns out to the initiated that this was a request rather than an insult, for it’s another of his lyrical works. Clarke did perform Twat as an encore, but I didn’t hear it. By then, I was in the bowels of the Royal Albert Hall clutching my camera and awaiting the arrival of Wilko Johnson.
Wilko and the band (Norman Watt-Roy on bass and Dylan Howe on drums) don’t waste time with pleasantries or introductions to songs, but that doesn’t really matter. For a start, it dilutes from the thrill of seeing them banging out tune after tune of high-octane R&B, and secondly pretty much everyone knows what’s coming next anyway. The set list hasn’t been subject to a great deal of change in years and that’s how we like it.
There are a couple of long-form variants of classic Wilko songs you get at every gig: When I’m Gone and Everybody’s Carrying A Gun. These two both feature extended instrumental breaks and really allow the band to let rip. In the former, the incredible skills of Watt-Roy (his 16th note bassline in Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick is the stuff of legend) remind you that a Wilko show is invariably as much about four strings as it is six. The two met during Johnson’s stint with Ian Dury and Norman has been Wilko’s left-hand man ever since. Aged sixty-six, the effort the diminutive bassist puts into the music is nothing short of remarkable and as is always the case, within minutes he was ringing wet. Truth is, we’re lucky to be seeing him at all. In July, Norman suffered a heart attack that confined him to a hospital bed for four days and there were concerns that this evening might not happen at all. It was an extra special joy to see him firing on all cylinders once again.
Everybody’s Carrying A Gun provided Dylan Howe (son of Yes guitarist, Steve) with his moment in the sun, coming as it did with a brilliant drum solo. Howe was also in the Blockheads, though his tenure came after Dury succumbed to cancer in 2000. I’ve seen and heard Dylan play many times but from my vantage point tonight (elevated, at the side of the stage) I had my first opportunity to really watch him at work. And my word, what an incredible drummer he is – the power and precision were something to behold. In the immediate aftermath of his departure from Dr Feelgood, Wilko didn’t always surround himself with the finest of musicians but this band, right now are as good as it gets.
Of course, the star of the show is the man whose name appears on the ticket and Wilko Johnson was in brilliant form. At age seventy, of course you can’t possibly expect the kind of physical theatrics that defined his time in Dr Feelgood – but whilst Wilko no longer gets airborne, he does still dart left and right, an expanding/contracting coiled guitar lead trailing in his wake. From my seat, I got a good view of the crowd and was particularly struck by a young Japanese lady sat front row, centre. Wilko has always enjoyed a special affinity with the Japanese – Japan was the first place he went when he was told he had cancer – and the Japanese have always enjoyed a special affinity with Wilko.
The lady at the front was going absolutely bananas. Her seat may well have been connected to the National Grid, such was her inability to sit still in it – and this is the only complaint I’ve got about the latest run of Wilko’s gigs in larger venues. The fan base might not be in the first flush of youth but this music is not designed to be enjoyed from a seated position. If you’re the kind of person who wishes to have your buttocks permanently connected to plush red velvet, the Royal Albert Hall has it in spades in the stalls above the arena floor. The all seated arrangement on the floor as well definitely restricted the enjoyment of many who clearly wanted to gyrate but felt as though they couldn’t for fear of causing offence to those behind. Sadly, it took until the last song of the main set, the classic Dr Feelgood tune She Does It Right for sense to prevail. One punter (Sir, I salute you) broke ranks from further back, came to the stage and encouraged the front rows to stand. The Japanese lady (and plenty of others) didn’t need asking twice and within seconds the whole floor was on their feet having a ball and wondering why they hadn’t done it an hour earlier.
The first encore, Chuck Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny featured a reappearance by Dr John Cooper Clarke, who whilst delivering a great deal of fun, did prove he’s a better poet than guitarist – Wilko providing him with an impromptu lesson half way through the rendition. They always play this last. When we all thought Wilko was dying, having him wave to the crowd whilst singing “Bye, Bye, Bye, Bye” brought tears to the eyes. It still does, but now for entirely happier reasons. The close of this song would normally be the point at which the band collectively say goodbye but such was the reception in the hall, they came out one last time to play a cracking version of Route 66.
These are extraordinary times for Wilko Johnson and his band. The man himself is at his happiest when playing in front of a crowd and the collective sound as good now as they ever have. They have a combined age of one hundred and eighty-four years. Who would bet against them delighting us all with a few more.
Review & Photography by Simon Reed. Wilko Johnson at the Royal Albert Hall on 26th September 2017.
Simon has his own music photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk