Gig review: WILKO JOHNSON – The Forum, London, 23 April 2016

Wilko Johnson

Support came from the prodigiously talented Joanne Shaw Taylor, who commands a sufficient following of her own to headline decent sized venues. As such, it was no surprise that the Forum was pretty rammed for her set. Nor that she plundered her four albums-worth of material for well over 50 minutes, giving the night a substantial double header feel.

This was a power trio performance.  JST was berthed out wide to deliver her gravelly, blues-soaked lyrics, with bass guitarist Tom Godlington out right and brick outhouse drummer Oliver Perry looming large in the centre. That meant no keyboard colour on some of the slower tracks like ‘Tried, Tested and True’, and the more jangly ‘Wrecking Ball’ but the stripped back, raw-boned delivery did them no harm at all.

Joanne Shaw Taylor - The Lowry, Salford, 29 March 2015

The band’s set up gave plenty of room for the emerging Queen of British Blues to claim the centre stage during her explosive solos and fluid licks. Which she did frequently. It was the raunchier, low-down riff-driven beasts that connected best with the crowd. ‘Outlaw Angel’ and ‘Watch ‘em Burn’ were both chock full of delicious boogie and swagger.

That said, Shaw Taylor is such a compelling guitarist that sometimes the tunes just don’t stand up to the playing. All you want is for her to get to the instrumental so you can wallow in the spirals, twists and shimmies; the ringing emotion dripping off her fretboard.  ‘The Dirty Truth’, the track that brought the set to a close, was just such a moment: a southern-inspired riff that built a platform for another series of uplifting lead guitar breaks.

Joanne Shaw Taylor gives every impression of a woman going big places in a hurry.

Unlike the inimitable Wilko Johnson, who does everything in his own (borrowed) time. Two years on from the cancer battle that looked like the final curtain, Wilko ambled on to the stage before the houselights had gone down and barely uttered a word to the crowd during the 90 minute set. He does all his communicating with his Telecaster. And sometimes with his eyebrows.

Things were initially a little slow to ignite. The rarely played ‘All Right’ from 1980’s ‘Ice on the Motorway’ was followed up quickly with ‘If You Want Me, You’ve Got Me’, another less well known cut. However, by the time ‘The More I Give’ arrived, the band were hitting their stride.

Wilko Johnson, Giants Of Rock - 9 February 2014

This performance was typical of Wilko’s latter day outings. There is less manic aggression and proto-punk in the arrangement and delivery of the tunes these days. Many of his songs have evolved different moods and characters at the hands of his unique rhythm/lead guitar style. ‘Roxette’, for instance, remains a brilliant piece of sharp, angular r ‘n’ b, but there is more jazz in the bassline now than ever conceived back in 1975. (And no harmonica, obviously).

Norman Watt-Roy’s wizardry with the four-string fiddle stick exerts quite an influence over the set. He and Wilko engaged in a stunning jazz-blues lick trading fiesta in ‘Cairo Blues’ that made the hairs on the back of the neck stand up; and earlier, Watt-Roy conjured up an intriguing Hawaiian lilt for a few bars of ‘Dr Dupree’.

The tracks where the three-piece stretches out have become the best part of the modern Wilko show. ‘Everybody’s Carrying a Gun’ featured layered guitar passages, wide-eyed crowd staring and a bit of Telecaster machine-gunning, together with top drawer drum and bass solos.

Mind you, ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ (a personal favourite) was a bit of a mess. It still has a taut construction built around descending chords that launch those trademark shards of biting guitar, but the impact was lost as Watt-Roy embarked on a flight of fancy that had him painfully out of sync with Dylan Howe behind the kit.

This was merely a momentary and entirely forgivable incident. The musicianship rarely falls below the highest standards. And they seem to love performing so much. The enduring quality of ‘Going Back Home’ (where we did get some proper rolling rock riffage) and later, the scintillating ‘Back In The Night’ were the gig’s copper bottomed hallmarks.

The noisiest track on show was ‘She Does It Right’ which, contrary to earlier comments, most definitely hung on to its punk edge and was slammed out with plenty of boisterous verve and vigour. The perfect set closer.

Just one encore tonight, a thorough work out of Chuck Berry’s ‘Bye Bye Johnny’. It became Wilko’s anthem at the end of shows when we all thought he was heading for the big one in the sky. Now it was a joyful wrap up to the evening with a big, cheesy, arm-waving sing-along on the chorus.

Splendid. The idiosyncratic Johnson just keeps rolling on.

Review by Dave Atkinson

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