Wilko Johnson: Bilston – live review
Bilston, The Robin 2
7th March, 2013
Another emotional and triumphant night of Wilko’s farewell tour – Bilston reviewed by Louder Than War’s macthehack.
No fanfares, no intro, no build up. Just after 9pm three blokes wander onstage. Simple as that. And then the room explodes.
Launching into ‘Going Back Home’ without any pre-amble, the air crackles with the vicious snap of Wilko’s trademark slashing rhythm guitar. Any thoughts that there could be an element of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ – coming the night after their Koko gig in London – are instantly swept away.
Everyone knows why we are here, nothing needs to be said and Wilko appears to be enjoying himself enormously. In spite of the circumstances it is a positively life affirming experience.
Like the well-honed unit that they are, the set was switched around (they’d kicked off with ‘Everybody’s Carrying A Gun’ in London), it may have been my imagination, but tonight’s set seemed to lean towards the Feelgood’s back catalogue more than normal. ‘Roxette’, ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ and ‘Down By The Jetty’ all get a rapturous reception of course from the sell-out crowd.
Seeing Wilko Johnson up close is still and always has been, a remarkable thing. Not only is he producing that heart stopping mix of rhythm and lead guitar, seemingly without any more effort than casual strumming, but he remains an almost cartoon maniac, prowling the stage. Every time he sets off across the stage on one of his famous walkabouts, it’s almost a run and he can still shift it, there’s an audible roar from the crowd.
It’s not hard to see the impression Wilko made when Dr Feelgood first started to raid London’s pubs from their Canvey Island base in the early ‘70’s. The wild eyed, sharp suited guitarist with the menacing stage presence and the riffs to match was the original fire-starter who ignited punk.
Famously, The Stranglers were watching (Wilko & JJ Burnel later became flatmates, playing host to various members of The Pistols, The Clash and er, Billy Idol). The fact that Wilko was able to inspire and stay true to his R&B roots is what’s kept him on the road, pretty much ever since. Fads and fashions ebb and flow, but Wilko just kept gigging.
Finally, kick-started by the release of the excellent ‘Oil City Confidential’ film, the world caught up. Now getting his due – and a gig on Sky TV’s ‘Game of Thrones’ apparently – it’s fast forward to the farewell tour.
The whole set is an absolute tour de force and while we are here to say ‘goodbye’ to one of the pivotal musicians of the last 40 years, it’s only fair to mention Wilko’s bandmates. Dylan Howe is crisp, precise and drives the band’s tempo superbly, while in Norman Watt-Roy you have a musician who’s as much a master of his bass as Wilko is of his guitar.
Put the three together and you have one of the great power trios, Watt-Roy and Howe giving Wilko the time and space to pull out all the party tricks, the machine gun telecaster, playing the guitar behind his head (and he really can play it) and giving us a graphic exhibition of the relationship between a man and his guitar on ‘Don’t Let Your Daddy Know’.
Wilko certainly gave the crowd everything they could have asked for, but you got the impression he was also enjoying the joy ride through his remarkable career. Watching him sing ‘Paradise’ you could almost see him recalling the moments that inspired that song.
In fact Wilko is so relaxed and feeding off the audience that he even delivers ‘When I’m Gone’ apparently without a trace of irony. “I may be right, I may be wrong, but I bet you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” Absolutely heart wrenching – you could feel it in the crowd.
It really is difficult to pick out highlights – the whole set was one long highlight. Words like ‘great’ and ‘legendary’ get bandied about all too easily at times, but Wilko Johnson is and should be remembered as one of the greats of British music and I have a feeling that these final ‘goodbye’ gigs, might well come into the legendary category.
But Wilko – like any good poker player – has another card to play and announces he’ll leave us “with something that I wrote back in those fabulous ‘70’s” before launching into ‘Back in The Night’, but, as has become traditional, that’s not all. Tailgating it and crashing into the end of the set comes ‘She Does It Right’, just about bringing the house down.
Returning with ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, Wilko waves, thanks the crowd and is gone, while the crowd takes up the chant “Thank-you, Wilko”. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Wherever you’re going Wilko, take your guitar – you’ll always be welcome.
All words and live photo by macthehack. You can read more from macthehack on LTW here.