You could be forgiven for thinking that nothing has changed. Wilko is touring relentlessly, just like he always did. He’s currently two months into a year-long jaunt entitled ‘Still Kickin’ – the comeback tour.
That’s ‘comeback’ in the Lazarus sense of the word. Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2013, Wilko had publicly embraced his fate. Then a fan in Japan who also happened to be a world expert in this vile disease, said ‘You should be dead by now’, or words to that effect, ‘therefore this must be a rare but operable variant’. And so a 3kg tumour was cut from Wilko’s nether regions (is this too much information?).
Now he’s back. Picking up right where he left off.
Although Johnson’s sets vary for each tour, the tracks are pulled from a finite pool of tried and trusted Dr Feelgood, solo and blues covers. That still left room for a couple of surprises tonight. ‘If You Want Me, You Got Me’ from ‘Barbed Wire Blues’ was just such a gem; and the excellent ‘Keep On Loving You’, originally from his 2003 album ‘Going Back Home’ has had a new lease of life since its inclusion on the 2014 album of the same name with Roger Daltrey. Almost a metaphor for the man himself.
Three short, sharp shocks from the monochrome Feelgood’s debut ‘Down By The Jetty’ were spat out in quick time. Show opener, ‘All Through The City’ and ‘The More I Give’ disappeared in a barrage of barbed riffage.
Then ‘Roxette’, missing from the setlist last time I saw the band, was dusted down and given a frenetic airing, pulsed along on Norman Watt Roy’s immense bass groove. A proto-punk classic featuring the immortal couplet ‘I’m gonna get some concrete mix/And fill your back door up with bricks/And you better be there waiting/When I get my business fixed’.
The performance, as ever, was hallmarked by moves that Wilko should have copyrighted long ago: telecaster machine-gunning the crowd; manic, wild eyed-staring into the mid-distance; and jerky strutting of the stage led by that angular jawline.
Wilko has always been a master of pace and tempo. Tonight ‘Everybody’s Carrying A Gun’ was stretched out and slowed down to showcase the full range of the guitar-meister’s dextrous chops and change ups. The interplay between Watt Roy and sticksman Dylan Howe was joyful. This inventive rhythm section adds so much to the vibrancy of the overall sound.
But it is clear that some things have changed.
Wilko is playing to bigger crowds these days. The Empire was properly packed with punters who had turned out to celebrate the survival of this one-off cult hero. It does mean, however, that we get a different Wilko. One who isn’t completely comfortable when he can’t eyeball everyone in the room. One who is reluctant to rap beyond the minimum with this larger, more impersonal attendance. The intimate gigs down the 100 Club are over.
The brevity of the set is a change, too. Never one for three-hour epics, his stage time has nevertheless been pruned to a swift hour or so. It seemed to me that the intensity of the performance was a notch down too. In his absolute pomp, Wilko is menacing in his delivery and violent in his music. There were some shades of this tonight, but the only time I felt that shiver down the backbone was for a few bars of stripped down Telecaster aggression during ‘She Does It Right’.
This is all a consequence of the illness and a recognition that Wilko is still on the comeback trail. A fact that may also explain his voice which is undoubtedly reedier and more nasal than previously. Admittedly, Wilko doesn’t possess the truest blues larynx at the best of times… and anyway, it’s the guitar that counts.
It is inevitable human nature to compare. In these circumstances though, it feels almost churlish. The bottom line is that Wilko is here, against all the odds, doing what we love and what he does best. Long may that continue.
Review by Dave Atkinson
Photo by Steve Goudie
Gig review (Manchester, 18 March 2015)
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