Photographs and Review by John Bentley
I was due to review Wilko Johnson at the Robin2 at the end of last year, but his tour was cancelled. Fans were stunned when it was then announced that the celebrated guitarist and songwriter had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. That might have been the end of his musical story, except that Wilko has defiantly chosen to launch a farewell tour. Everyone in the audience at the Robin2 tonight knows that the gig is going to be a momentous event.
The 700-capacity Robin2 was sold out within hours of tickets going on sale. Quite clearly Wilko could have played and filled larger venues if he had so chosen. Many fans have come from far afield to see their hero and, shamefully, touts were selling tickets on-line for well over £100. Although he has had a solo career and was for a time guitarist with Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Wilko is probably best known as the manic incendiary guitarist with 1970s rhythm and blues band Dr Feelgood. In the mid-1970s, Dr Feelgood came on the scene playing a back-to-basics R and B that was the antidote to the heavy / prog rock styles that were then the norm. They are widely credited as inspiring the emergence of the punk rock wave that followed.
Dr Feelgood put excitement back into rock, in no small part due to Wilko’s song writing, guitar playing and stage presence. With his jerky movements across the stage, his scary staring eyes and choppy guitar-playing style, he helped make Feelgood a major live attraction. There were other factors of course, including his penning of so many great songs, such as ‘Roxette’ and ‘She Does it Right’. And of course there was the excellence of Dr Feelgood’s late great singer, Lee Brilleaux. The iconic photo on the cover of the live ‘Stupidity’ album (with Wilko glaring as Brilleaux sings) really sums-up the interaction the two had in live performance and defines Dr Feelgood’s appeal.
Wilko and his band take the stage to rapturous applause at nine o’clock. We get a full-on dynamic performance for the hour and a half of his set. He shows no sign of his infirmity as he darts around and, what’s more, he really seems to be enjoying the whole event. We are thrilled as we witness his trade-mark ‘machine gunning’ of the audience with his guitar while playing ‘When I’m Gone’. During the extended extravaganza of ‘Don’t Let Your Daddy Know’ he holds his guitar in front of him and addresses ‘her’, like a lover. He and the crowd are clearly loving all this.
His band are really first rate. Norman Watt-Roy shows superb prowess with the bass and constantly gyrates to the music, sweating buckets in the process. Drummer Dylan Howe seems more laid back as he lays down a solid rhythm. Both are accomplished musicians, and members of The Blockheads, and have worked with Wilko for some time. Wilko is generous, for although tonight is undoubtedly his show, he allows his musicians plenty of time in the spotlight.
The set for the evening is mostly classic Dr Feelgood songs, starting off with ‘All Through the City”. We also get Feelgood songs ‘Going Back Home’, ‘Roxette’, ‘Sneaking Suspicion’, ‘Back in the Night’ and ‘Paradise’. A highlight is the splendid ‘Dr Dupree’, particular the guitar parts, where Wilko actually sounds like he’s playing two guitars. Wilko’s voice is great and it seems to have actually improved over the years, remembering of course, that he was not actually the vocalist in Dr Feelgood.
The main set ends appropriately, with one of Wilko’s best songs, ‘She Does It Right’. Suitably encouraged by the audience, the band come back for the encore and play a lengthy Chuck Berry cover, ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, complete with Wilko improvisations,. This visibly brought tears to the eyes of some of his long-term fans. There is some great band playing, as Wilko sings about the train bringing his baby back. The lights stay down for some time after the band leaves the stage and the audience gradually realise that they are not returning. A spontaneous chant starts up – “Thank you Wilko”. It could have been a sad evening, as Wilko is unlikely to be returning to the Robin2. Instead it was a joyful, as well as emotional, event that truly celebrated the music of Wilko Johnson. That “thank you” was for his lifetime’s work.
Simon Johnson, the guitarist in tonight’s support band, Eight Rounds Rapid, is clearly one of many who has been influenced by Wilko’s style. This is obvious from the way he plays, holds his instrument and darts around the stage. I later find out that he is actually Wilko’s son, which may help explain it! Singer David Alexander looks pale and pretty straight faced throughout the evening. “Cheer up!” someone shouts. “I’ve had a bad day”, he replies. Essex-based Eight Rounds Rapid dress in suits in a mod-ish way and play an enjoyable spiky take on punk. They have some good songs – for example, check out the rather good video for ‘Channel Swimmer’ on You Tube.