Sunday, October 9, 2016

Wilko Johnson - Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, 8 October 2016

I wonder how much having become a national institution affects how Wilko Johnson goes about his business? Being a veteran of a well-loved and idiosyncractic English R&B band is one thing.  Sidestepping fatal cancer thanks to a second diagnosis, appearing in Game of Thrones as a grimly comic character, and acquiring lovable eccentric status through his contribution to the movie documentary Oil City Confidential is liable to make a person scratch their heads rather more.
Wilko gives the plank a bit of a spanking
Whatever Wilko Johnson may think about all that, onstage he seems relaxed and in his natural habitat.  This is the first time I’ve seen him live, and I imagine his performance might have been more tense and wired in days gone by.  But his approach to guitar playing continues to be entertaining in the most singular way.
At the outset, on something that may or may not be called ‘You’ve Got Me So Confused’*, his percussive style inevitably conjures up the influence of The Pirates’ Mick Green.  But in combination with his bass playing Blockhead compadre Norman Watt-Roy it emerges into its own domain.
Okay, so Johnson’s voice is rather flat, not in the sense of pitch, but because of its ordinary, nasal quality.  This we know, but while I might rail against naff vocals elsewhere, to be honest it doesn’t much matter here.  He gets by well enough on the reggae propelled ‘Dr Dupree’, the Feelgood crowd-pleaser of ‘Goin’ Back Home’, and a wild run through ‘Roxette’.  It’s only when he gets to ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ that it becomes apparent.
By the time we get to the eyeballs-out R&B of ‘It Won’t Be Long’* there’s a Wilko t-shirted commissar prowling the front row encouraging people to dance, and finding some willing accomplices.  And no wonder. Johnson is well into his rocket-fuelled scooting across stage, while Watt-Roy is hunched over his bass, apparently double-jointed in animation as he
whacks out peculiarly Anglo-angular funk beef to underpin Johnson’s jangling guitar.
To a non-musician like me, Wilko’s guitar-playing is a thing of mystery.  I’m used to seeing
Premier League bass funkster Norman Watt-Roy
talented guitarists whose left hands are relatively quiet on the fretboard, but whose right hand is finger-picking with incredible dexterity.  That’s not what Johnson does.  Somehow, as he appears to thrash his fingers across all six strings, precision notes get picked out en route as if by magic.
It’s also notable that while Johnson’s Canvey Island, Thames Delta sound draws heavily on Chicago R&B, he’s also a Chuck Berry devotee like Keith Richards, which gives the sound a lift.  The combination of influences reaches a highpoint on ‘Everybody’s Carrying A Gun’, where the boogie woogie elements and Johnson’s machine-gunning solo eventually synchro-mesh with Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe to kick-start a flat-out R&B rave-up.
By the time we get to a set-closing segue-way of ‘Back In The Night’ and ‘She Does It Right’ the crowd are on their feet and going bonkers, and it carries on through a lengthy encore of ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ mingled in with what goodness knows what.  They pull off that solo-into-riff crunch several more times along the way, and when they do so I feel like laughing out loud.  When you get down to it, when Johnson and Watt-Roy are on the money, what they do is emphasise and elaborate on the beats and rhythms laid down by Howe.  I know it’s only rock’n’roll, but I like it.

*Confession: These song titles are approximate!

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