This has been a weekend of boyhood heroes. Last night: Jeff Lynne’s ELO at the O2.
Tonight: Wilko Johnson at the O2 Forum, Kentish Town. One day, London’s best music venues won’t all be named after an unremarkable mobile phone network. But I digress…
I’ve been loving the work of Wilko Johnson ever since, at the age of 14, I saw him on TV demonstrating how he seemingly plays rhythm and lead guitar at the same time.
The man is a genius. He’s also the reason I shoot live music photography. As is now well documented, in late 2012, he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and given 10 months to live. Despite having seen him play an awful lot of times, I lamented the fact that I had no lasting record of it. And then I stopped to think that in fact I had no lasting record of any of the many, many gigs I’d been to. It was then that I decided I wanted to document live music – but from the best seat in the house, and not from behind the screen of a mobile phone – that’s not cool people.
Of course, it turned out that Wilko’s tumour was operable after all, not that he was really expected to survive the procedure. But survive he did, and I’ve now captured the one artist I really never thought I was going to a number of times. The one ironic element to the whole story is that Wilko is now playing venues the size of which he hasn’t seen since he parted ways with Dr Feelgood in 1977. As Spinal Tap would say ‘Death Sells’. Well tonight, he’s sold out the 2,300 capacity Forum in Kentish Town. Fortunately, it seems, life sells too.
Truth be told, part of the reason this show is sold out is because of the support – Joanne Shaw Taylor. Taylor is a formidable artist in her own right and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see this gig as a double header – an assertion given credence by virtue of the fact the Forum was absolutely packed in time to see her take to the stage. Joanne is a consummate guitarist, though personally I preferred the finger style light touch of her Telecaster based numbers over the heavier sound of the Les Paul she toted for much of the night tonight. She closed with the title track of her latest album ‘The Dirty Truth’ – “A song about a shithead of a boyfriend – it’s a fictional tale”.
During the break, ‘Shakin’ All Over’ by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates rang around the venue. It was an apt choice, for the Pirates’ guitarist Mick Green is cited by Wilko as being the inspiration for his own incredible guitar style. In short order, the band; Wilko on vocals and joint lead/rhythm guitar, Norman Watt-Roy on bass and Dylan Howe on drums took to the stage and commenced their set of dirty, oil stained, Canvey Island R&B. The set list has remained largely unchanged for years and absolutely nobody cares.
It’s not only Johnson’s guitar playing that is unique; his stage presence – bulging eyes, paranoid stares, skittering left and right as far as his coiled lead will permit and random mimed machine gunning of the crowd – are all staple ingredients in a Wilko show. About the only thing he doesn’t do any more is get airborne – but he is of a certain age and has recently undergone major surgery. I think we can allow him that.
In time, we come to two highlights: ‘When I’m Gone’ and ‘Everybody’s Carrying A Gun’ – two songs featuring extended instrumental sections that give the ‘supporting’ musicians a chance to shine. Norman Watt-Roy is an extraordinary bass player who has powered Ian Dury’s The Blockheads for years and whose classic 16th note baseline in ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. He must have the strongest 65 year old hands and wrists on earth and could probably climb vertical cliff faces if called upon. Dylan Howe (son of Steve, virtuoso guitarist in Yes) is equally accomplished in his workplace and his solo, full of light and shade dynamics and strewn with jazz pretensions was also sublime. This band might not be greater than the sum of its parts – but if the sum of its parts were actually expressed as a number, it would make your head spin.
Whilst Norman and Dylan do their stuff, Wilko continues to strut and carry out further mock executions with the Telecaster. Everybody has seen it loads of times before and nobody ever gets tired of it. The band closes with ‘Back In The Night’ and ‘She Does It Right’; two classics from the Dr Feelgood heyday, and they depart for the shortest of breaks. What the hell, we all know they’re coming back on and we’re all getting on a bit.
To absolutely nobody’s surprise, when they return they play a version of ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ that has more ups and downs than a Tory MPs boxer shorts. It must be the longest single-song encore since records began and Wilko pulls out all the stops: duck-walking, playing guitar behind his back and racing back and forth like a crab that’s overdosed on Tartrazine. During the farewell tour that ultimately wasn’t, Wilko used to wave goodbye during this song and many of us (myself included), waved back with one hand and wiped tears with the other. Now when he waves, Wilko Johnson clocks a sea of beaming smiles where the tears used to be and amen to that. ‘Till next time Wilko… we’re looking forward to it already.