Wilko Johnson, Koko | New music reviews, news & interviews
Wilko Johnson, Koko
The bard of Canvey Island bows out on sparkling form at farewell London gig
What fire and grace on display last night at what he and we assume will be Wilko Johnson’s final London gig. It’s been a while since ticket touts were out in force outside one of his gigs (£200 for you, sir) although his career has been floating upward in the last couple of years, partly due to Julien Temple’s excellent documentary Oil City Confidential. We came to pay affectionate tribute to one of the great guitar stylists, who announced a couple of months ago that he had terminal cancer.
Most bands playing material from 40 years ago are going through the motions and are basically karaoke versions of their younger selves. But Wilko’s terminal diagnosis seems to have pepped him up (he’s given some inspiring interviews about how alive, even euphoric his diagnosis has made him feel), and that vital sense of living in the moment came through in his passionate performance. He was on top, sparkling form for his farewell.
Wilko, with only slight exaggeration, can be said to have saved rock music in the early Seventies by bringing it back to the essentials (just as at the same time Steve Reich, a fellow minimalist I saw last week, you could argue saved classical music). Dr Feelgood made a mythology of Canvey Island and arrived looking like down-at-heel bookies. Lee Brilleaux was the charismatic singer, but Wilko looked like he was plugged directly into the mains. He still seems almost to have the same ferocious energy, duckwalking around the stage as he sprays the audience with bullets from his Telecaster.
Dr Feelgood’s stage persona was fairly macho and tough, but Wilko, who loves medieval literature and reads Icelandic sagas in the original, always had a more melancholic and Blakean element in his make-up, more airy compared to Brilleaux’s earthiness. Tender, too - over the irresistible oil city riff of “Paradise”, he refers to his late wife Irene who “turned him upside down” aged 17 and could “see me through my darkest hour.” Irene seemed to be an unexpected presence of the night. In “When I’m Gone” (from a solo album) he sang of lovers only parted by death, and in “Bye Bye Johnny”, the Chuck Berry number, he sang of a black train that had taken his love away, and was coming soon enough for him. None of this was depressing, but it was heartbreakingly poignant.
The band, with Norman Watt-Roy on bass and drummer Dylan Howe, are better musicians than the Feelgoods backline, and created an immensely tight backdrop to Wilko’s theatrics.The set was mainly Dr Feelgood classics, including a delirious “Roxette” and “Back In the Night”, although they were also the moments when we missed the coiled anger of Lee Brilleaux, capable and expressive though Wilko’s voice is, even if he strained for a few of the higher notes. Non-originals included “Woolly Bully”, the garage rock stomp given a zydeco twist by a guest accordionist, with “Bye Bye Johnny” for an encore. Yes, we all waved adieu to Wilko, who waved back – it would have been hammy if it hadn’t been so tragic. Scores of middle-aged blokes felt a lump in our throats as we reached for the Kleenex. “God bless you all” said Wilko (who had hardly said a word all evening) as he left the stage. Bless you too, Wilko.
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