26th September, 2017, sees a rowdy crowd descend upon the hallowed ground of the Royal Albert Hall to honour the life of a musician whose influence on everything from blues to punk still reverberates across the music industry. The four albums Wilko recorded with Dr Feelgood from 1975 to 1977, still stand as a cornerstone of English blues rock and, with the emphasis on Wilko’s unique guitar playing, the band had a profound effect on the shaping of the English musical landscape as it developed to incorporate the visceral fury of punk. Going solo upon his departure from Dr Feelgood, Wilko continued to place his stamp upon English rock and albums such as 1981’s ‘Ice on the Motorway’ (the title track of which was revisited with considerable power on the stunning ‘Going back home’ album, recorded with Roger Daltry) remain an object lesson in paired-back rock ‘n’ roll, free from the vagaries of fashion and driven only by Wilko’s intense need to play as if a hellhound were on his trail.
Still making our way across London, we unfortunately miss Eight Round Rapid, whose brief set eases everyone into the night, but we do get in just in time for Ben Tehoval’s set. Ben, who has played support to Wilko many times over the years (usually, he says, in venues where it smells like the owner has a lot of cats), is a revelation. Playing solo, with a kick drum and hi-hat on one side and a bass pedal on the other, Ben still manages to fill the auditorium with sound. His short set is nothing short of mesmerising and his brief, witty interludes perfectly gel with the relaxed, yet celebratory vibe in the venue. It says much of his power over the audience that, when told his set is over, the audience roars its disapproval with such vehemence that he is granted an additional song and we are treated to a powerful rendition of Dylan’s ‘Like a rolling stone’. Few artists can entrance so large a crowd with a solo performance (Dylan & Neil Young spring instantly to mind) and Ben Tehoval is in that mould, breaking out a harmonica to grand effect and playing loose, yet fluid guitar underneath a voice that has plenty of rock ‘n’ roll grit. His set is a joy to behold and it’s a shame when he takes his final bow. 9
Dr John Cooper Clarke is the original punk poet (and if that conjures up images of Rik in the Young Ones, well, you’re probably not far wrong). Armed with a fistful of poems and resplendent in a sharp suit, he dominates the stage and, with pieces like ‘Evidently Chickentown’ and ‘Beasley Street’; as well as the evergreen ‘Twat’; he successfully interpolates fiery polemic and stream of consciousness insanity to grand effect. He even debuts the frankly bizarre ‘Chimp with the razor’ to tumultuous applause and his appearance on the bill as chief support feels like something of a throwback to the seventies where multi-media line ups were commonplace and where the performance poet could comfortably stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the punk in an age before everything became compartmentalised. It’s a refreshing change of pace and it makes Wilko’s arrival on stage feel even more ferocious. 8
What more is there, really, to be said about Wilko Johnson? With minimal fanfare he shuffles on with his band as the house lights dim, seeming almost comically surprised by the rapturous din that greets his appearance. Dressed in his customary black attire, he straps on his guitar and proceeds to send the assembled throng into a frenzy. Tethered by a curly, red guitar lead, Wilko prowls his quadrant of the stage, tapping his feet relentlessly and occasionally marching to the front of the stage to machine gun the audience. His energy is compelling and the audience respond in kind, steadfastly refusing to be cowed by the majesty of the surrounding and eventually allowing their energy to overflow, leaping from their seats and crowding next to the stage as the set nears its climax.
Before that, however, we’re treated to an extended trip through Wilko’s impressive back catalogue. Songs like ‘if you want me, you’ve got me’ never grow old, whilst the reggae-fuelled ‘Dr Dupree’ and the Dr Feelgood standard ‘going back home’ feel custom made for an event of this size and scale. Even better, ‘sneaking suspicion’ gets a sprightly airing and if it is slightly disappointing that we don’t get ‘ice on the motorway’, at least Wilko makes up for it with a monstrous, extended take on ‘when I’m gone’, the perfect showcase for Wilko’s mighty rhythm section which comprises Dylan Howe (drums) and Norman Watt-Roy (bass). The latter remains a revelation, his manic energy and remarkable prowess on the bass providing the perfect foil for the untameable Johnson.
With time running short, the main set concludes with another Dr Feelgood classic, ‘back in the night’, which sees the entire audience on its feet and security standing helplessly by as the front of the stage is mobbed by a sea of fans, no longer able to contain their excitement at the power of the performance. It’s probably the closest the rather sedate Royal Albert Hall has come to a riot and yet, despite the energy that shoots through the crowd like electricity, it’s celebratory, the audience revelling in the vitality of a man whose recovery is one of the great rock ‘n’ roll stories. Wilko, of course, is not quite done, and as he leaves the stage, a flurry of activity sees another amp brought on before Wilko and his band return for a very special encore of Chuck Berry’s ‘bye bye Johnny’ complete with Dr John Cooper Clarke on guitar. It’s a highlight of a set filled with highlights and, as the audience streams out into the warm September night, there’s the buzz that comes only after a truly special gig. 10