Gig review: WILKO JOHNSON Koko, Camden, Wednesday 6th March 2013

There was never any doubt that this would be a life-affirming gig. Wilko Johnson has been a focused, intense and immersed performer for the best part of 40 years. The scope for mental or physical weakness was simply not on the agenda. If Wilko had detected any doubts about his ability to deliver a trademark blistering gig then he wouldn’t have turned up.

The gulf between the guitar-meister’s on-stage persona and his life away from the circuit has never been better emphasised than in the last few months. Wilko has been engagingly gracious, crushingly honest and revealingly open in interviews that mark a spiralling level of media interest in him. His diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer is one thing. His decision to refuse treatment and to go out in a blaze of activity is quite another. Contrast those interviews with his gigs since the news broke and you would be hard pushed to detect any note of sentimentality and where communication with the audience has been at its usual minimalist level.

In terms of the performance, this gig was no different from any of those he has served up at any point in his gnarled career. Wilko’s persona was all present and correct: frenetic stalking of the stage, eye-popping mad-man stares and Telecaster strafing of the audience. The standard of the musicianship was its usual dizzyingly high quality. Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe gave Johnson all the space he needed and threw down some jaw-dropping interplay of their own.

But some things had changed: the size of the venue, the electric atmosphere and the quality of the sound. Koko is a stunning Victorian music hall of tiered balconies and boxes encased in an opulent gilt and red ceramic skin. The natural habitat of Wilko gigs is a sweaty pub or a tiny club where the furious nature of the high octane performance gives an intense experience. If some of the intimacy was – quite rightly – sacrificed here, it was easily compensated by a razor sharp, state of the art, decibel heavy PA that emphasised every simultaneous chop, lick and riff to magnificent effect.

Wilko has maintained the aggression and violence of those mould breaking mid-70’s Dr Feelgood cuts. ‘Roxette’ was so sharp you could feel your eyes watering, ‘Back In the Night’ delivered with more dangerous edge than an Alpine precipice. But the style has evolved too. There is less brutal riffage underpinning the straight r’n’b of ‘Going Back Home’ these days and instead a more complex rolling six-string rumble played with lighting fast fingers and unerring accuracy.

Mick Green of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates is cited by Wilko as his great influence and he has described learning to copy that style by slowing down singles to 33 1/3 rpm.  This under-estimates the unique qualities of Mr Johnson though. Alongside the trademark lead/rhythm sound that powered the searing  ‘She Does It Right’ and ‘Sneaking Suspicion’, we were treated to a subtle, haunting version of ‘Dr Dupree’ that had touches of Hawaiian guitar, swing and jazz, picked out in chiming, crystal clear salvoes, sliding over each other and competing for attention. No one else can do that. No one else sounds like that.

Long time fan, Alison Moyet (who looked and sounded fantastic) joined Wilko for an electric encore of ‘I Don’t Mind’ and ‘All Through The City’, from Dr Feelgood’s debut ‘Down By The Jetty’. For those who regret Wilko walking out so early on the Feelgoods, this was a welcome reminder of how good he is with a lead singer to bounce off and play to. Remember that cover shot from ‘Stupidity’?

‘Bye Bye Johnny’ has become the only vague nod to sentiment on this tour, with fans waving Wilko off stage and out of their lives at the end of the gig. Here the moment was lost in some welcome comic farce.  First the lead broke on his Stratocaster (strapped on specifically for this tune) and then a string snapped when he had reverted to his trusty Telecaster.

A second encore of ‘Twenty Yards Behind’ flashed by in a rare blaze of heavy blues brilliance. Then in triumph, in modesty, in magnificence and in vitality, Wilko departed.

Dave Atkinson

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