Wilko Johnson in The Academy, Dublin, on May 29th 2015
The drums are pushed as far back on the stage as they can be. It leaves quite an expanse between the kick drum and the two mic stands that occupy the front. It bodes well, seeing this wide, empty stage that just three men will occupy. Wilko Johnson – Dr. Feelgood engine room and Ian Dury & The Blockheads alumnus – has always cut a distinctive figure, commanding song and stage with his singular playing style and striding presence.
Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013, Wilko decided to forego treatment in favour of the road. A subsequent operation forced the cancellation of his shows at Dublin and Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, but in that same year he recorded the ‘Going Back Home’ album with Roger Daltrey, one of the most raucously enjoyable of 2014. Wilko has long been one of the most respected musicians in the business, and as he struts across the stage, matching the chopping riff of Dr Feelgood’s Down By The Jetty, it’s with a charisma and energy that defies medical science.
Wilko combines dextrous blues licks and powerhouse rhythm guitar all in one motion; the work of two guitarists with just five fingers. He moves like a machine – mechanical pivoting rhythmic chops with his right arm, fingers carving out notes; head snapping back and forth; legs propelling him from one end of the stage to the other and all the while glaring, but these days, smiling too.
Bassist Norman Watt-Roy – he, too, a Blockhead – contorts with every note he plays, a dynamic, organic foil to Wilko’s more upfront posturing. He takes a jazzier solo than his previous – that’s right, two bass solos – on Everybody’s Carrying a Gun, as Wilko stands facing him, arms folded in admiration. “Come on, talk to me!” he calls to Watt-Roy’s bass, before re-joining the party, cutting through the air with a swipe of his Telecaster’s neck.
The sentiment of When I’m Gone (“I may be right, I may be wrong, but I bet you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone”) isn’t lost on the crowd, but its delivered without a trace of sentimentality. Somehow that just doesn’t seem like Wilko’s style, as he tosses the lyric aside and machine guns the audience with his guitar, overlaying Watt-Roy’s bass with fantastic, stabbing blues solo interjections. It’s a lengthy, rocking version, with a rowdy response to boot.
Back In The Night comes updated “from those wonderful ‘70s”, as do a crackling Roxette and She Does It Right from Dr. Feelgood’s first record. Wilco steps across the stage as far as his coiled guitar lead will allow, as if he’d just keep on going if not tethered to his amp and snapped back into position. As influential as the man is as a guitarist, he tips his own nod to two past masters over two encores; pulling out a playful Chuck Berry duck walk on Bye Bye Johnny, soloing with guitar behind head, and then bowing out on a more straight-ahead take on Nat King Cole’s Route 66.
As a packed out Academy will attest, Wilko is still one of the most distinctive guitarists operating. Many have copied his motions; few have managed to rise above pastiche. There’s no flab tonight, little room for chat and platitudes. With the rhythm section of Watt-Roy and snare drum-breaking jazz drummer Dylan Howe, and Wilko at the helm, this is a power trio par excellence; beginning with a bang and carrying on through in the kinetic, driving R&B tradition that Dr. Feelgood appropriated with muscular aplomb. It’s a pleasure to be shot down with a bullet from Wilko’s six-stringed shooter.