wilko johnson at the koko

Wilko Johnson

The Koko, Camden – 14th October 2013

This was the gig that was never supposed to happen. When Wilko Johnson announced he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had refused treatment, he had been informed he would be dead by October. Two farewell dates at the Koko were hastily arranged in March to allow the legend to wave farewell to his legions of fans and tickets sold out in minutes, fetching £200 a hit on the black market as the weekend dawned. Through two emotionally-draining nights, the old venue groaned under the sheer weight of numbers as Wilko and his band played out two scintillating shows which certainly served as a fitting finale for a man who helped change the world.

Grumpy bastard as he is, Wilko then resolutely refused to croak, never reacting well to being told what he should be doing. Two more dates were arranged at the same venue with the guitarist stating these would definitely be the last, but only because of the embarrassment if he had to perform any more 'farewell' dates.

Not surprisingly, a different mood prevails at these shows. With Wilko experiencing a period of euphoria after his initial diagnosis, he had enjoyed the March gigs without feeling partcularly sentimental about them. Since then, with his illness failing to take any real grip over him, he has reverted to his curmudgeonly old self and the effect has clearly been similar on his public. It would be discourteous to say there is something of a "boy who cried wolf" feel about these shows, but there is certainly a feeling of denial, that Wilko has made it so far without any bother and he will probably go on forever. Tickets for the night are still available on the day, touts are notable by their scarcity, and though the Koko is dripping people by the time Wilko hits the stage, the mood is altogether different; this feels like another gig, another decent night out, rather than a goodbye to one of the music world's most charismatic operators.

Once again Wilko has the same terrific band on stage with him, former Blockhead colleague Norman Watt-Roy on the bass and drummer Dylan Howe still manfully making amends for the sins of his father. Once again proceedings kick off with ‘All Through The City’ from Dr Feelgood’s magnificent debut Down By The Jetty and once again the night is full of Johnson-penned Feelgoods classics, alongside cover versions and solo tracks. The energy is startling and it's impossible to take your eyes off the man as he sweeps across stage in his old familiar style, whether gliding sideways moving only his feet, or charging to the front of the stage guitar held high, staring unblinkingly at the audience who roar at every move he makes. He chops at the strings, he tickles them, he teases them, he machine guns the audience, plays behind his head, duckwalks. Give the man water and he would have walked on it, taking care to avoid the oil slick that had drifted down from the Thames Delta. The audience here are those in the know, those who recognise that performers such as Wilko Johnson come along once in a blue moon. If you're lucky. And in truth, Wilko would have been cheered if he had walked on to the stage and coughed for an hour, but thankfully, there are no such sympathetic offerings; Wilko is electric and his band on top form. We'll forgive him the "introducing the band" section with its prolonged solos. Wilko may have ushered in the punk revolution, but was never part of it, and when your musicians play as well as the skeletal Watt-Roy and eternally grinning Howe, it's easy to brush aside any misgivings. Even more so when you are treated to an elongated version of the psychotic ‘Roxette’, the dangerously prowling ‘Back In The Night’ and the see-sawing ‘Going Back Home’. It's the Feelgood classics that receive the greatest cheers, and rightfully so.

A whole venue full of fifty-somethings wave their hands as Wilko crashes through the encore. “Bye, bye Johnny” echoes around the Victorian rafters and then the bubble finally bursts. Shit, this isn't just another gig, this really is the last time we will ever see this man on stage. This isn't going to happen again. Ever. The audience chants his name over and over leading to a second return and a run through a final Feelgood classic puts the seal on a career, a legend ... a life. He may not have felt it last time but on this occasion it hits home. His bandmates point at him. He chokes on his words. “Fank you ever so much”, and Wilko Johnson leaves the stage for the last time.

Sometimes life is indescribably crap.

Words Adam, Pics Richard
wilko johnson

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wilko johnson live at the koko, march 2013