Chess [Release date: 10.03.17]
A new Wilko Johnson best of. What’s not to like? Well, despite the strength of the material, even a die-hard fan such as myself might legitimately ask whether this new collection adds anything significant to the body of work already available.
Since the iconic guitarist’s roller-coaster near-death cancer diagnosis and recovery in 2014, we have not been short of solo career retrospectives. At the last reckoning, there has been two new CD compilations, one set of excellent re-recorded tracks with Roger Daltrey, a brilliant, if slightly quirky, biopic, a live DVD and a second volume of autobiography. That’s not to mention the plethora of Wilko-era Dr Feelgood material already available.
Indeed, this is not really a new offering. It is a 25-track two-disc affair on the prestigious Chess label, but it is a re-packaging/re-ordering of the two-volume Cadiz Music albums originally put out in 2014. It comprises tracks re-recorded by Wilko together with Norman Watt-Roy on bass and Dylan Howe on drums between 2008 and 2012.
It is an odd beast. Firstly, we have a slightly uneven look back at the post-Feelgoods career of Wilko. The bulk of the collection comes from the trio of albums ‘Ice on the Motorway’ (1980), ‘Barbed Wire Blues’ (1988) and ‘Going Back Home’ (2003). There is nothing from Pull the Cover (1984) or ‘Red Hot Rocking Blues’ (2005). We are treated to only a solitary cut from the ‘Solid Senders’ album (1978), despite the fact it contains many live staples.
Then there are the half-dozen reworked Dr Feelgood classics that really should have been left alone. The original recordings of ‘Roxette’, ‘Back In The Night’ and ‘She Does It Right’ are bona fide r’n’b classics capturing a pivotal moment in British rock music; and also stand as a testament to the gravitas of gravel-voiced Lee Brilleaux. Listen to them in their original pomp, or listen to them re-interpreted on one of Wilko’s good live albums. Don’t put up with these half measures.
That said, the solo tracks offer many fine moments and it is good to hear the exceptional Watt-Roy/Howe rhythm unit combine on early Wilko studio material. ‘Barbed Wire Blues’ has the classic hallmarks from chopped riffs to pace-changing instrumental breaks and off-beat lyrics; ‘When I’m Gone’ has an infectious groove, and brilliant vocal hook; and Cairo Blues’ crafts together a reggae feel with some shards of psychedelic guitar.
Some of the choices go beyond Wilko’s typical sharp, edgy and wiry compositions. ‘Come Back and Love Me’ is as near as the man comes to a straight blues ballad; ‘Turned 21’ is both raw and tender; and ‘The Beautiful Madrilena’ floats on a piano lick straight out of a 19th Century Texan saloon.
Still, I come back to the view there are better versions of nearly all these tunes elsewhere: whether on the original Feelgood/Wilko albums; especially on live albums; or even on the 2014 collaboration with Roger Daltrey which at least cast some fresh light on the tracks they chose to revisit. There’s not too much added value here. ***
Review by Dave Atkinson
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