wilko johnson

Wilko Johnson

The Koko, Camden – 10th March 2013

Long before the boy looked at Johnny, a single glance at Wilko Johnson gliding across stage would have left any watcher spellbound with helpless admiration. Though Rotten fanned the flame, Johnson was the catalyst of the inflagration that happily and unmercifully incinerated the rotten wood of the seventies music scene. Totally, magically captivating, this unique musician flew across stage in all directions, eyes fixed on the audience in an unblinking, psychotic stare, guitar held as a weapon, tapping out rhythm and lead at the same time, never missing a note as his band blasted out short, edgy blues anthems, the complete antithesis to the never-ending, multi-layered prog rock dirges that dominated at that time; music which made your soul want to scream out with rage and repulsion. Together with the hawk-like gaze and sneering ferocity of singer Lee Brilleaux and the solid backing of the powerful two-John rhythm section, Johnson lifted Dr. Feelgood from the local pub circuit to the top of the album charts in a few, exciting years, paving the way for the punk revolution and giving the kids an anti-hero to hold to their hearts. The Feelgoods recorded in mono, their artwork was black and white, they were miserable bastards, their music was powerful and jagged, their live act utterly mesmerising. They were the first.

Of course, ultimately they blew it. Johnson consumed too much dope while his bandmates were too beered up and macho for a group hug and a little reassurance. It was a typical communication failure. But by the time they fell apart in 1977, their work had already been done and a thousand guitars had taken the battle on to the next stage.

Sunday 10th March 2013 and Wilko Johnson walks unassumingly on to the stage at the Koko in Camden High Street. Having recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer this is the final date of his farewell tour and the old, Victorian theatre, host to many performances by Charlie Chaplin at the turn of the century, is once again packed to the rafters. Faces crowd the stairways, hang off walls, and fight for every available inch to catch a glimpse of a legend saying goodbye. But this is not a night for tears and self-pity; Johnson is here to play the blues and does so with considerable bite and no little style. What more would expect from a man who never believed himself to be anything else than the guitarist in Dr. Feelgood?

Joined on stage by incomparable bassist Norman Watt-Roy and impressive drummer Dylan Howe, ironically the son of prog guitarist Steve Howe of Yes, Johnson kicks off with ‘All Through The City’ from the Feelgood’s magnificent debut Down By The Jetty and the night is full of Johnson-penned Feelgoods classics, alongside cover versions and solo tracks. He exudes a fierce energy which feeds into his vocals, no longer the mournful mumbles found on some Feelgood recordings, and he quickly shows he has lost none of his moves, scuttling across the stage to the delight of the crowd who cheer his every move to the rafters. The noise at the conclusion of every song is quite deafening; the crowd are loving every minute and Wilko is in his element. This is not a farewell but a celebration of the music he loves and the music the audience love. These are the fans who had never forgotten and never gone away; plenty of fifty-somethings who remember salvation coming out of Canvey Island. Tickets for the show sold out in minutes; touts were asking up to £200 a shot, but most of those in the Koko had to be there whatever the cost. This is the last time they will hear the beautifully insane ‘Roxette’, the rumbling ‘Back In The Night’ and the tumbling ‘Going Back Home’.

Johnson remains buoyant as the show draws to an end. He’s covered every inch of stage, machine gunned the audience with his black and red Fender, he’s stabbed, thrashed, tapped and teased and departs with a simple, “Goodnight. And goodbye.” He then pauses and raises his arms, “Fanks”, and he’s gone. The audience erupts, shaking the foundations of the old Hippodrome to its Victorian roots, before the main man eventually decides to return, clearly delighted with the reception. But then it gets emotional as the bastard decides to play ‘Johnny B Goode’. “Bye, bye Johnny,” he sings and waves to the crowd. They wave back. Fuck. Wilko’s real name is John. There’s some dabbing going on in the crowd and not a throat without a lump. Encore over and the roof is lifted by the audience chanting his name. It’s indescribably loud. Johnson returns and points to his bandmates. Sod ’em. We’re here to pay homage to the man who closed the book on the past and ushered in a new dawn. One quick blast through a Feelgood song and it’s over. “Fank you so much. God bless you all”, and Wilko Johnson leaves the stage for the last time.


wilko johnson live at the koko

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