Review: Wilko Johnson – he does it right

Hair long gone, eyes still staring… Wilko Johnson. Photographs: Steve Cowell
15 Jul 2013 @ 9.32 am
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Hair long gone, eyes still staring… Wilko Johnson. Photographs & video: Steve Cowell
Hair long gone, eyes still staring… Wilko Johnson. Photographs & video: Steve Cowell

Review: Wilko Johnson
Venue: Fibbers, York DV8 Festival, Sunday July 14

Wilko Johnson first grabbed my attention back in the late 1970s when he teamed up with the late, great Lee Brilleaux to form Dr Feelgood, a pub-rock / R&B band from Canvey Island, Essex. Wilko stood out both in his looks, his actions and his guitar playing style.

Always dressed in black, the staring eyed, mop topped youth would move around the stage as he played the guitar in the choppy style that he become famous for. He once explained that he had seen Mick Green, of Johnny Kids & The Pirates, combining lead and rhythm playing styles, and from there he developed his own distinctive technique.

After leaving Dr Feelgood, Wilko went on to play with Ian Dury and The Blockheads – where first played with bass impresario, Norman Watt-Roy, before stepping up to the mic and fronting the Wilko Johnson Band.

In January this year, Wilko made public the news that he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer – and that he had decided not to take up the option of chemotherapy. He announced a farewell tour which, unfortunately, had to be cut short due to his ill health.

But recently Wilko issued a statement saying, “It seems that I am still being spared the final onslaught of my terminal cancer… I am feeling again the desire to get up on stage and do my thing while my health allows”.

He announced that he would make some festival appearances over summer. York’s DV8 was one of the festivals lucky enough to be added to Wilko’s list of shows.

Incredible show, emotional night
Incredible show, emotional night

Wilko played an incredible show at Fibbers, opening with All Through The City from Dr Feelgood’s debut album, Down By The Jetty. The set included Roxette and She Does It Right – other Feelgood classics from this seminal album – as well as a number of his later works.

Wilko, the hair long gone, but the eyes still staring, prowled around the stage and he made his Telecaster sing out the tunes we wanted to hear. The guitar was underpinned by Norman Watt-Roy’s amazing bass lines and drums courtesy of Dylan Howe. There were extended guitar, bass and drum breaks – all enthusiastically received by the crowd.

The once, apparently, emotionless features of Wilko have slipped slightly – even allowing himself the odd smile. But it was during his encore and final number – Chuck Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny – that the singalong chorus became more poignant… the music stopped and the audience sang “Bye, bye, bye, bye” as Wilko waved back.

It was a great night – but one of mixed emotions. I left the venue elated, yet sad. My ears were ringing, but there was a tear in my eye. I can only hope that he staves off his illness for long enough in order to “do his thing” many, many more times.