While browsing on the web yesterday I found out that Wilko Johnson’s band were playing at the Citadel in St Helens that evening. Wilko is one of my all time “guitar herose”. He used to be the lead guitarist in Dr Feelgood, who tasted success for a short while in the 1970’s with their raw version of R & B. He has a very distinctive style, managing to combine lead and rhythmn guitar.
I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see his band and after several attempts I managed to get through to the box office on the phone and, luckily, was able to sort out one of the last tickets. Wilko does have a loyal following but I guess his current tour has had more interest due to the release of Julien Temple’s film about Dr Feelgood, “Oil City Confidential” that I saw at the cinema in February and which was recently shown on BBC4.
The Citadel is a relatively small venue and over 200 people (mainly middle aged men reliving their youth, with a smattering of females) packed in. There are some seats on the balcony but downstairs it’s standing room only – on this occasion a middle aged “mosh pit”.
First up was the support band “the People’s Republic of Mercia“, a band from Birmingham playing raw R & B, mainly self penned. They played a good solid set very much in the style of “Dr Feelgood”. They weren’t exactly a handsome bunch, but had a good stage presence – particularly the lead singer/rhythm guitarists and the bassist.
Wilko’s band features Norman Watt, formerly of Ian Dury’s Blockheads, on bass and Dylan Howe, the son of Steve Howe (of Yes) on drums.
Wilko was the centre of attention, strutting round stage in his own inimitable manic style, with his eyes staring into middle distance, just like he used to in the Feelgoods. At times pointing his guitar at the audience as if it was a machine gun. The crowd lapped it up. He look different these days, 30 odd years on. His mop top has disappeared – he’s now bald, and his face shows his age. He also plays a Stratocaster rather than the Telecaster that was his trademark in the 70’s.
Wilko acted as vocalist. He always sang a few numbers with the Feelgoods, but he’s no great singer – almost tuneless. The band really good do with a good vocalist but I guess that anyone he recruited would be compared with Lee Brillaux, the amazing vocalist from the Feelgoods and the comparison would, inevitably, be unfavourable.
Norman Watts is also quite a character. Bald on top, but with long hair at the back and sides, he has distinctive teeth and strange stare, crouching over his instrument, he reminded me of a zombie from a Hammer horror film.
Dylan Howe is younger and normal looking! He works away hard at the back of the stage, out of the limelight providing a solid platform. Nothing too flash – and he only took a very short drum solo towards the end of the set.
The music was solid R & B, a mixture of Dr Feelgood number including “Sneaki’n Suspicion” “Roxette”, “Back in the Night” and “She does it right”,some songs from Wilko’s later career and a few R & B standards . Wilko’s lead/rhythm guitar overlying a solid rhythm section.
It was a great performance and a great atmosphere. A good night out.
To see a video I shot of “Roxette”, click here.