With 2017 marking the 30th anniversary of the Wilko Johnson Band and the legendary guitarist recently celebrating his 70th birthday, there’s no better reason for a show at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall.
Diagnosed in late 2012 with terminal pancreatic cancer Wilko continued to perform and present himself with vigour and a new zest for life. At the KOKO in March 2013 I saw him play what was expected to be his final gig. It was an emotional affair, but later that year came the amazing news that – thanks to a second opinion and subsequent life-saving surgery – Wilko was cancer-free.
There’s no big deal made of tonight, it’s just business as usual for Wilko as he strolls out on stage and straps on his trademark black and red Telecaster. Along with Norman Watt-Roy on bass and Dylan Howe on drums, the London audience are treated to an energetic, career-spanning set from the rhythm ‘n’ blues power trio.
Tethered to one side of the stage via his short guitar lead, Wilko makes the most of the space afforded him. From the reggae inspired ‘Dr. Dupree’ off the 1978 Solid Senders album, to the kick ass boogie number ‘Going Back Home’ from his recent collaboration with Roger Daltrey, there comes the trademark duck walking, machine gunning antics which never fail to delight.
There’s no doubt about it, it’s weird for an audience to be seated at this kind of show (but this is the Royal Albert Hall don’t you know!) and the signs of frustration are evident, with many a foot-tapping punter eager for more. As the Dr. Feelgood classic ‘Roxette’ arrives early, followed by ‘When I’m Gone’ it’s clearly more than many can handle, particularly a Japanese lady in the front row who just lets it all go, and fair play to her.
An extended version of ‘When I’m Gone’ gives time for brief, individual masterclasses from each member of this triune. Along with Wilko’s choppy, jagged guitar rhythms, there is of course the extraordinarily supreme bass work of Norman Watt-Roy. Wowing an audience as only he can, appreciation stretches to the knowledge that Norman recently suffered a heart attack which could have easily seen this gig cancelled. As for drummer Dylan Howe – son of prog-rock legend Steve Howe – his power and versatility are evident here and throughout the rest of the show.
After three supports, which include punk poet John Cooper Clarke, time runs relatively short. With it the band don’t mess around, knocking out tunes in the allotted schedule such as ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’, ‘Paradise’ and ‘Everybody’s Carrying A Gun’. Completing the main set is the Dr. Feelgood double-header ‘Back In the Night’ and ‘She Does It Right’, at which point there’s a swarm of folk up on their feet and heading to the front to dance themselves silly.
Back out for Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’, John Cooper Clarke joins the band on guitar for a bit of fun, and as Wilko tries to give him pointers, it’s obvious he should stick to poetry. The crowd is now mostly on their feet and in the aisles, probably wondering why it’s taken them so long. They sing along, loud and proudly “Bye Bye, Bye Bye” as Wilko waves back at them, happy in the knowledge that this is not for the last time. As it happens, it’s not even for the last time tonight as the band re-emerge for a great version of ‘Route 66’.
As the crowd spill out of the Royal Albert Hall there’s a feeling of contentment, to have witnessed such an emphatic performance which quite conceivably, for one reason or another, may never have happened. To the Wilko Johnson Band and the man himself, HAPPY BIRTHDAY … we look forward to the next one.
Review & Photography: Steve Johnston