The Fleece, Bristol
Simon Price on pop: We'll miss you when you're gone, Wilko Johnson
A farewell tour like no other, as the Dr Feelgood star hits the road
Sunday 03 March 2013
Raffles. Reginald Perrin. Sherlock Holmes. The Fonz. Ross from Friends. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Fiction is littered with instances of the protagonist contriving to attend their own funeral. Real life is providing a character as colourful as any on that list: Wilko Johnson. And, for all the misty eyes and lump-choked throats, his living wake is the most joyous celebration around.
As he stepped into the January sunlight after receiving a diagnosis of inoperable pancreatic cancer, Wilko Johnson has spoken of his "elation" and of feeling "vividly alive". Given less than a year to live, he announced that he would, while in relatively rude health, play a handful of farewells for his fans. The tiny silver lining is that Wilko gets to read his own eulogies. Here, without apology, is another.
Wilko Johnson is one of the true cult heroes of British rock'n'roll. Dr Feelgood, of whom he was main songwriter and co-frontman, came rattling out of Canvey Island in 1971 looking – and sounding – as if they were out for a fight. Precursors of punk on the pub-rock circuit, they brought an edge and aggression to blues in a decade when it had become masturbatory, and put the "rhythm" back into R'n'B.
Behind the brutish exterior, Julien Temple's wonderful Feelgoods doc Oil City Confidential revealed Wilko as an erudite aesthete and a bit of a dandy on the quiet, with a glass dome in his roof for watching the stars. Tonight, though, he's on duty. The self-confessed "show-off" gives us the psycho stare (the one that landed him the part as the executioner in Game of Thrones), the pigeon-necked jut, the amphetamine sulphate shuffle and the clockwork-duck walk, machine-gunning us with the headstock of his 1962 Telecaster.
Johnson's trademark "skittering" guitar style – metronomically strumming with his right hand while alternately pressing and damping the chords with his left – is as distinctive as Bo Diddley's. Backed by drummer Dylan Howe and Blockheads bassist Norman Watt-Roy, he attacks badass-blooze classics such as "Roxette" and "She Does It Right" with gusto.
Wilko is not a sentimental man. There's no valedictory speech, but he has enough showbiz in his bones to milk the situation just a little. The couplet "I may be right, I may be wrong/But I bet you're gonna miss me when I'm gone" is delivered with pointed emphasis.
For the encore of Chuck Berry's "Bye Bye Johnny", he has the whole place chanting "bye bye, bye bye". A great man and a great musician, Johnson's final gift is to share his aliveness and elation with the rest of us. For that, Wilko, thank you and bye bye.
Wanna feel old? Then watch The Big Reunion, the ITV series in which pop acts of the late Nineties and early Noughties are reconvened before your eyes. Nearly everyone had fallen out and many had developed drug and alcohol issues.It's all smiles, though, for the concert of the TV show (Hammersmith Apollo, London ***). Atomic Kitten's Kerry Katona is, according to my inner decibel meter, the biggest draw, while her day-glo sidekicks are merely anonymous Cheshire landowners. I've nothing but admiration for the way a working-class girl has parlayed a brief pop career into an endlessly lucrative living as a reality star.
If you want a shock, look up 911's chart stats. For two years the boy trio were massive – according to tonight's show – thanks to a succession of dismal disco covers and ballads. The turn of the millennium was clearly a dark time for pop.
The group who top the bill, 5ive, are ludicrous – "wiggy wiggy, I'm getting jiggy" is an actual lyric – but "If Ya Gettin' Down" has Hammersmith on its feet. No matter that it's delivered by a bunch of blokes pretending to be 5ive. Essentially, that's what they now are.
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