The Royal Albert Hall, with its storied boxes, swivel chairs and cavernous auditorium wouldn’t be the most obvious choice for a Wilko Johnson gig. Then again, this is no ordinary gig. Wilko is celebrating his 70th birthday, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the formation of his band. No mean achievement, considering Lazarus-like flirtations with his maker a few years back.
Neither is the line up an ordinary afffair. The show kicked off with Eight Rounds Rapidfeaturing his son on guitar and then continues with John Tehoval, who is perched out the front of the stage with a kick drum on one side and a beat-up amp on the other, fulfilling every impression of an ageing busker from Exhibition Road who has found himself inside the venue by accident.
We catch the end of his blues-folk set. His Dylan-esque ramblings go down well to the extent that he is invited back for an encore of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.
Dr John Cooper Clarke continues the theme of off-beat, hand picked support. The original punk-poet engages the audience for a good half-hour, when I feared 15 minutes would be more than enough. The set is a mixture of some of his well-known compositions like Beesley Street with some newer material, including a hilarious skit on the guest list for this show.
The delivery is less slick theses days, where some stumbling over the monotone delivery impacts on the flow now and again. At one point he forgets the lines to a fresh poem about narcotics and has to fill in for a couple of minutes whilst he locates the words in a battered A4 book of compositions.
The fills, banter and impromptu stand-up are one of the highlights. Clarke remains a funny, edgy, non-conformist character who’s stick-thin wild-haired appearance still cuts an entertaining presence.
In a world where wireless rules the roost, Johnson is like the last man in a business empire to insist on a Friday pay cheque whilst everyone else has a monthly bank transfer. Deliciously out of his time and flagrantly retro.
This all meant that Wilko Johnson and his excellent band didn’t hit the stage till about quarter to 10 and were forced to smash out a taut set lasting an all-too-brief 75 minutes.
As is Wilko’s style at bigger gigs, these minutes are packed with lean, quick fire rhythm ‘n’ blues, leaving precious little time for chat with the crowd or pauses between the songs.
‘All Right’ from 1980’s ‘Ice On The Motorway’ used to be a rarely played gem, but now that Wilko has dusted the track down, he has clearly rekindled an affection for it. The slow-burning blues crawl has been the curtain raiser for a couple of years now and gives way in double-quick time to ‘If You Want Me, You’ve Got Me’, another cut that until recently was less well known.
I’ve seen and reviewed Wilko on a good few occasions both before and since his near-death encounter in 2014. 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, and with the influence of the brilliant Norman Watt-Roy on bass. ‘Roxette’ remains a sharp, angular strut, but there is more jazz in the bassline now than ever dreamt of when the tune formed part of a genuine ground-breaking canon back in 1975.
If Wilko’s music has evolved, the style has not. He eye-balls the crowd from the front of the stage with his Telecaster tethered to a battered amp by a bright red telephone cable. In a world where wireless rules the roost, Johnson is like the last man in a business empire to insist on a Friday pay cheque whilst everyone else has a monthly bank transfer. Deliciously out of his time and flagrantly retro.
‘Going Back Home’ is brilliant with an unfathomably deep bass rumble and the band on fire with perfectly judged dramatic poise after the mid song drum roll. Maybe it was because I have a side-on view of the stage, but Dylan Howe seems electric and animated behind the kit tonight.
A Wilko Johnson set always gives the impression of familiarity and yet leaves room for a few little surprises. ‘I May Be Wrong, I May Be Right’ reveals a superb extended middle section jaunt, with Wiko setting the tempo for a sublime, improvised jazz exchange between Howe and the ever-funky Watt-Roy.
‘Everybody’s Carrying A Gun’ deals in familiar chopped riffs and that bizarre Hawaiian lilt that Wilko feeds in to his playing. ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ and ‘Paradise’ pick up the tempo and the crowd are warmly appreciative, but still they sit stubbornly in their comfy seats.
The set, as previously mentioned, is short with ‘Cairo Blues’ and ‘Dr Dupree’ most obviously culled. Too soon, we reach the set closers, a full-blooded ‘Back In The Night’ paired with the rawest tune on display, ‘She Does It Right’. Suddenly the space in front of the stage is filled with punters jumping and jigging; the aisles crammed with dancers.
There is no pretence of departing the stage before the encore. A stage manager whispers something in Mr Johnson’s ear, a roadie swiftly brings out another amp and John Cooper Clarke joins the stage for a riotous ‘Bye Bye Johnny’. Except no-one has flicked the switch on our loveable poet’s rig and not a note is audible from his Telecaster.
This time the band do leave the arena and a by-now noisy crowd haul them back for another Chuck Berry romp in the shape of ‘Route 66’. The atmosphere, eventually, is pulsating and Wilko departs for a final time amid emotional waving, bowing and thank-yous.
Short, sweet and unique. There is no-one like Wilko Johnson. Happy birthday old fellah.
Words Dave Atkinson
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December 16, 2015