Wilko Johnson: Legendary guitarist speaks to Louder Than War then delivers a stunning show to rapturous acclaim in what could prove to be his final appearance on stage.

Wilko Johnson 

Music Live Festival

Myrtle Park, Bingley, Yorkshire 

Saturday, August 31st 2013

Live Review

Legendary guitarist speaks to Louder Than War then delivers a stunning show to rapturous acclaim in what could prove to be his final appearance on stage.

This can be a melancholic time of year. The long evenings of high summer are giving way to the onset of an autumnal chill, shadows lengthen and leaves are starting to turn.  Autumn will inevitably come and we know what lies behind. However, this only makes us more determined to focus on the here and now and to treasure every precious moment. Bingley is one of a number of festivals that keep the festival circuit defiantly buzzing through late-summer. A fantastic line-up that included The Human League, The Fratellis, The Cribs, Primal Scream and Chic featuring Nile Rodgers was enough to tempt capacity crowds but one man stood above all. Bingley was designated as the venue for what could be the final performance from the legendary guitar-king Wilko Johnson and what a glow he would bring to this venue.

Speaking to Louder Than War shortly before hitting the stage Wilko explained his love of playing festivals. “We’ve done a few this summer and I get a great buzz from them. Obviously it’s been a bit unusual as I didn’t expect to be playing any this year. I’ve been doing them at quite short notice as I can’t plan too far ahead but here we are at the end of the summer. We don’t have a setlist, we just go with how we feel when we’re on the stage. I think this will be quite a short one today.” The length of the set would not concern the audience (like all festival crowds made up of all ages) as the performance will live forever in their memory. “Audiences are audiences aren’t they? Most of them probably weren’t even bloody born when we started.”

Seeing Wilko live is always a memorable experience, not only for the guitar skills of the maestro himself, but also because his band contains two men you would cheerfully travel miles to see on their own. Drummer Dylan Howe all rhythmic potency and a master of his craft and Norman Watt-Roy nothing short of a genius on bass Asked for his feelings about his band  Wilko paused; “To me they’re the best rhythm section ever………that’s why they’re with me!”

Wilko was able to sum up what we could expect from his performance perfectly. “Sunshine! It’s fantastic isn’t it? We played the Fuji Festival in Japan at the start of the month. That’s a huge festival that even has people watching from mountains. From the minute we arrived in Japan it was just raining all the time but the minute we walked onto the stage the sun burst through the clouds and it was just wonderful.” It was clear that Wilko was picturing this magical sight as he spoke and equally clear that performing at festivals in the sunshine has energised him.

Only last summer, Wilko spoke of one of his favourite memories from his career, a festival in France in 1975. Dr Feelgood hit the stage just as the sun was setting and proceeded to take the place by storm. As he spoke that day, Wilko remembered the magic of the twilight and the power he and his band-mates injected into it.

Taking the stage here today, we don’t think of the twilight as this is late afternoon. The weather, the crowd and the force are all with this bravest of men as the air is pierced by the shredding and unmistakeable sound of the mythical telecaster and they launch straight into ‘Down by the Jetty’. Norman experienced some early sound problems which meant the first song inadvertently highlighted the lone guitar sound, much to the amusement of the man himself.

Bass issues rectified, the full awesome power of this trio was showcased to perfection with ‘If You Want Me, You’ve Got Me’ and ‘Dr Dupree’. There is a swaggering familiarity to what is  one of the most easily identifiable yet totally distinctive guitar sounds in rock history and the thousands who were here to witness it were well aware of the significance of these special moments. The classic ‘Roxette’ is delivered before the vigour and poignancy of ‘When I’m Gone’ grabs the senses and brings a lump to the throat. But how can you be sad when Wilko is clearly relishing every second of it? The familiar machine gun pose is followed by the legendary shimmies and duck-walks across the stage, each accompanied by huge cheers from the crowd. Wilko is absorbed in the moment as are we all.

Then a curious thing happened during ‘Paradise’. As he sang  the words “A thousand highways you don’t live twice/Only one road to paradise”, the sun which Wilko had promised, and which until now had stubbornly refused to shine, burst through the clouds and bathed both stage and audience in a golden late-summer hue.  A moment of prosaic and touching symmetry.

‘Don’t Let Your Daddy Know’ was delivered in all its full beauty, featuring set-piece solos from Norman and Dylan that  lend further proof, as if it was needed, of the pure talent of each band member. As the set built to a climax, Wilko was thriving on the energy of a crowd that had been totally hooked from the moment he walked onstage. At the side of the stage, many of the other artists on the bill watched on as entranced as the crowd while Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie spoke for all later when he dedicated a song to Wilko and described him as a “true hero”.  ‘Back in the Night’ was followed by the inevitable ‘She Does it Right’, a standout track any night but here it became an enduring memory.

Being an open air venue did nothing to lessen the roar of the massive crowd at the conclusion of the set and their love and respect for the legend swept down to the stage and ensured a final appearance. Wilko was genuinely touched by the response but was able to remain composed during the final song ‘Bye Bye Johnny’. Tears flowed in the crowd during what were the most moving moments I’ve ever experienced at a live show but the sight of thousands of waving hands and voices in unison answering the calls of ‘Bye Bye’ from Wilko ensured a fitting climax.

If this was Wilko’s final appearance, then these moments in Myrtle Park, Bingley, will enter rock history. This was the place where the man whose musical DNA will be present whenever the guitar is played made his last stand, and what a performance it was. If he has retired then, for me, the phrase ‘guitar hero’ should be retired in his honour too. As he left the stage the sun continued to shine, just as Wilko said it would. Summer is not done yet, hopefully not for a long time.

Set List

Down By the Jetty

If You Want Me, You Got Me

Dr Dupree


When I’m Gone


Don’t Let Your Daddy Know

Back in the Night

She Does it Right

Bye Bye Johnny

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