Wilko Johnson’s farewell tour is, for once in rock’n’roll, poignantly irrevocable. The pancreatic cancer doctors say will kill him this year has seen to that. With bitter irony, his discussion on Radio 4 of his post-diagnosis sensations of pin-sharp connection to the world finally introduced a general audience to one of British rock’s lost treasures.
Inside the honest club sweatbox where Johnson has aptly chosen to start his last go-round, there’s barely room to move. These fans don’t know him as a spiritually articulate cancer casualty, but the songwriter-guitarist of Canvey Island’s great 1970s r’n’b band Dr. Feelgood. They had a theatrical menace which cleared the way for punk, and in Johnson a bug-eyed guitar gunslinger whose lyrics carved pulp poetry from the landscape and people of his Essex home.
With Blockheads bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe backing him, Johnson is soon tearing into songs from a solo career still awaiting discovery. In “Barbed Wire Blues”, his serrated, stuttering guitar stabs are an art a personal, irreplaceable art.
“Dr. Dupree” then offers an exotically mysterious narrative, to which Johnson curls drifting psychedelic blues figures. Dr. Feelgood’s “Sneakin’ Suspicion” may be his best song. The notes are clenched as tight as a speed-freak’s teeth, and the blues template of “waking up this morning” is given film noir existential threat, as a phone the narrator doesn’t dare answer rings in an empty room. Factory shifts, late-night drinking and ill-advised affairs animate this world.
There’s something fundamental to everything he does tonight: the slow-motion slides across the stage, eyes bulging in mock-threat, and the lean plucks and punches of his guitar. He swings that machine-gun surrogate one more time near the end; no longer the comic-book Al Capone of old, more a soft-hearted gangster of love.
Albeit one who only the previous day, he sheepishly tells us, stabbed his guitar-hand with a carving knife in the heat of an argument on Skype. There’s a long, delicate encore of Chuck Berry’s “Bye Bye Johnny”, in which the lyric “Bye-bye, Johnny B. Goode” draws farewell waves from the crowd. It’s the only hint of mawkishness. Johnson feared he would be a “sorry spectacle” before these gigs began; a stricken, pitiful casualty. The happy evidence is that Wilko Johnson is utterly alive.