It’s difficult to know where to start with this post as there is so much to say about Wilko Johnson and everyone is in a frenzy of talking about him at the moment, mainly for the tragic fact he has recently announced that he is dying. I was a bit of a late adopter of Dr Feelgood which is where Wilko started out if you like. Dr Feelgood – a crazy, bluesy, tough band from a place sort of near Essex although I wasn’t really quite sure exactly where, that played in pubs and were a bit punk, a bit rock, a bit blues and a bit loud. This was my basic perception of Dr Feelgood age 9 or 10. I thought they were people like my Dad – rebellious men that liked Chuck Berry, drinking, taking drugs and were a bit rock and roll. In hindsight I think the ten year old me got the immediate measure of them rather well. I remember seeing them on the Old Grey Whistle Test and thinking they were very exciting but I noticed they didn’t wear punk clothes and Lee Brilleaux suddenly played a very un-punk harmonica so I stopped paying attention after a while in a rather shallow fit of 11 year old would-be punk pique.
Fast forward to the premiere of Oil City Confidential in 2010 where I was completely blown away – not just by the film which filled in and made sense of all my Feelgood intervening gaps but also by the gig after the fllm. Wilko Johnson played live – it was an amazing gig with his bass cohort in crime Norman Watt-Roy playing his instrument like a musical corkscrew, Alison Moyet filling in for Lee Brilleaux with a voice of gob-smacking heavy blues perfection and Charles Shaar Murray on harmonica – wow – who knew?!
Fast forward to last Sunday night standing behind a lot of men of a certain age in jeans and fleeces drinking beer. Basically this…
Yes. Finally it was here. The thing we had all been dreading. This was Wilko’s last and final gig. I was in two minds earlier in the year whether to get tickets as I was worried that I would end up watching a favourite legend surrounded by grown men (in jeans and fleeces!) crying their eyes out and swigging beer which they would eventually spill over me because they were so upset. And I didn’t really fancy being a part of what could have become a maudlin gawpfest. Needless to say, I overcame my unfounded paranoia and shut up and got tickets. So there I was at Koko on a Sunday night waiting for one of the world’s most lovely, talented and interesting men Wilko Johnson to come on stage. I did actually move because I genuinely was behind the tallest man ever to be seen at a gig. He was also standing next to his friend – the broadest man ever to venture to a gig so I somehow sidled through them and ended up in a lung-squashing position further forward but at least I could see.
The support band were amazing. Eight Rounds Rapid are officially my new favourite new band. A razor sharp four piece from Southend. They usually play to small crowds of 200 and here they were killing it in front of 3000. They were raw and strong and all I could think of was ‘oh hurray and thank you, punk does live!’ Sharp boys in sharp suits playing proper music with so much talent, attitude and spark. It was all there. The lead singer reminded me of a reincarnated Brilleaux with an added touch of bitter spikiness. Totally refreshing and fresh in every way.
© Ian Pile
Bang! A final little crackle in the air, the air that was heavy and almost chewy with electric anticipation. And whoosh – here he was:
© Dave Coombes
It was a stomper of a set – a pumping Roxette, a loud Back In the Night and a great big belter of Woolly Bully where you could really sing along like a rowdy hooligan. The place was packed to the gills. I’m so glad I was squished in the pits, I kept looking up at the balconies and boxes and thinking some people looked a bit inanimate. I found it a bit odd. How could they? But perhaps we were the lucky ones downstairs? We had Wilko staring at us down the barrel of his giant sound, whipping us into a frenzy with his choppy Telecaster gun. Norman Watt-Roy was in there, right in there with his bass, in the very bottom of that bass pit where some musicians would never dare to go. He is the keeper of that place and was astonishingly good. The fact that three guys could make this belting volcano train of a sound running over our heads was quite something.
Wilko seemed more and more energised the longer he played. The great thing about the whole gig was the over-riding feeling of happiness and positivity that literally burst out with pounding resonance from the PA. There were no prolonged thank you’s, no speeches about illness and no talk of it being the last gig. Just more and more great music, more and more darting left and right and lots of rather showy brilliant playing from all three musicians on stage. Rather like the extraordinary dignity with which Wilko has openly discussed his recent diagnosis – it was all left unsaid and celebrated to the max which was truly energising, warm and lovely. I did detect a thread of unspoken poignance that kind of started with Paradise. I thought of Irene, and Wilko, and of proper true love, and only then suddenly got a bit of a passing lump in the throat.
I looked around and I saw a man wipe his eye. This gave way to an incredible, cyclic version of When I’m Gone to the point it almost became a mantra which then turned into Wilko’s favourite guitarist Chuck Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny. I suddenly realised Wilko had hopped on to that dark, black train that had ‘taken his love away’ and we hadn’t noticed. There he was, it was now taking him away down the track and he wasn’t coming back. And we were waving back, waving goodbye with such happiness. Wilko waved back ‘god bless you all’ he shouted so happily and that was it. Perfect. What a night and what a man. And if that isn’t enough – you can listen to him here on Front Row – it says it all. I wish Mr Johnson had been my English teacher but I am also very glad he took up guitar and that I have now seen him play twice. We are all very lucky and he is right – the time most definitely is now.