If you like your rhythm with a bit of blues, your blues with rhythm, or your rock ‘n’ roll old school, then Wilko Johnson is a man sent from heaven. Wilko Johnson originally played with The Pigboy Charlie Band, who evolved into Dr. Feelgood, one of the key bands in the English Pub Rock movement, which played such a huge influence on the birth of Punk. Dr. Feelgood released four albums – Down by the Jetty, Malpractice, Stupidity and Sneakin’ Suspicion with Wilko before he left the band in 1977.
Wilko has graced the stage for over 40 years with the likes of Dr. Feelgood, The Solid Senders, Ian Dury & The Blockheads and of course under his own moniker. Wilko himself declares that he’s “supposed to be dead” after he was diagnosed in late 2012 with terminal pancreatic cancer. Despite the doctors worst predictions, he continued to perform with a new lust for life and even made the most successful album of his career, Going Back Home, with the legendary Roger Daltrey. Following that album’s remarkable success he announced that thanks to a third opinion from a doctor moonlighting as a rock photographer and life-saving surgery, he was now cancer-free. With customary humour Wilko said of this late-career resurgence “Man, there’s nothing like being told you’re dying to make you feel alive”
Wilko has played to audiences large and small over the years but publicity from his illness has resulted in an incredible renaissance for Canvey Island’s finest artist. Tonight’s show at Leeds University is sold out – packed to the rafters with fans old and new. Wilko’s playing has never been better and the pleasure he gets from playing live is there for all to see. Wilko may just be proving that Rock ‘n’ Roll can be one of life’s greatest healers.
The set covers early Feelgood like Roxette, songs from his forthcoming album, Blow Your Mind, and perennial favourites like his insanely funny rendition of Chuck Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny. Wilko’s show isn’t just about the songs though, this is a show in the true sense of the word. Wilko doesn’t say much but his face says a thousand words. Johnson must have one of the most expressive faces in rock ‘n’ roll – it tells stories and jokes – words aren’t necessary. As for his performance, Chuck Berry would be proud of him – duck-walking, machine gunning the audience with his guitar and crazy moonwalk style side sliding, Wilko is a man of many talents.
Wilko’s guitar style is something to behold – he doesn’t use a pick but instead relys on fingerstyle. This enables him to play rhythm guitar and riffs or solos at the same time creating a highly percussive guitar sound. It evolved from a failed attempt to copy Mick Green of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, a guitarist whom Johnson greatly admired. Norman Watt-Roy, Wilko’s old mucker from the Blockheads days is one of the finest bassists you ever will see and Dylan Howe plays it simple on his kit, letting the talents of Wilko and Norman shine. Dylan gets his moment though, with a superb two minutes of virtuoso drumming. This is all about the band – equal in talents but so much greater as a whole. Every person attending tonight left the venue with a huge grin on their face as Wilko proved there are many more years in him yet.
Look out for Wilko’s first album of new material in 30 years, Blow Your Mind, which is out on CHESS RECORDS via UMC on 15th JUNE. Johnson describes the record as “The album I never thought I’d get to write”. It deals with the trials and tribulations that he faced in the last five years, songs such as Marijuana and Take It Easy deal very directly with the terminal diagnosis he was given. Speaking about the first sets of lyrics that he’d written in three decades, Wilko says “It’s tricky when you get to seventy years old, because what am I supposed to be singing ? I love you, baby, but you done me wrong ? Come on! That’s kind of a problem. But I never thought that I’d be the sort of person to write songs about different sorts of real-life experiences until I got sick”.
Anyone expecting that Wilko’s particular brand of R&B to be softened by such heartfelt lyrics is in for a surprise, if anything his guitar style of the chop as he calls it, is even more aggressive. The introspection of some of the tracks on the album is more than balanced out by the good time upbeat party feel of the title track, Beauty and I Love The Way You Do that have the urgency of Wilko’s earliest work with Dr. Feelgood.
On going back into the studio after everything that he’d been through, Wilko has this to say about the 12 tracks that make up Blow Your Mind. “I didn’t really intend to ever use them and obviously, I didn’t know if I’d ever get back into the studio. One of those songs, that’s a reflection of that time, about sitting around the house at night knowing that death’s coming; we’ve recorded it, and it’ll be on the album. It’s actually quite a cheerful one, too!”
Producer Dave Eringa puts it succinctly “I never expected to be making another Wilko Johnson album after Going Back Home but what a pleasure & a privilege it was to be able to capture Wilko’s first new songs for 30 years ! He is one of music’s true gentleman – literate, intelligent, & articulate but still rock’n’roll as fuck !!”
WILKO JOHNSON – BLOW YOUR MIND – RELEASED ON CHESS RECORDS via UMC – 15th JUNE
Listen To / Download the first single, Marijuana, HERE
All gig photos in HD, and available for free download HERE