The latest act to board the retirement tour bandwagon is Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. Except on this occasion – unlike with Cher, Barbra Streisand etc – the farewell is genuine: Johnson, 65, was recently diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He has been given less than a year to live. On learning the prognosis he spoke of a strange “elation of spirit”. “I just hope it spares me long enough to do these gigs – then I’ll be a happy man,” he added.
Sentiment ran high at the first of two London shows – but not on stage. Johnson entered briskly, strapped on his guitar, gave a wave. Then he was off, cranking out hard-boiled R&B with bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe. Choppy riffs broke like North Sea waves off Johnson’s hometown, Canvey Island in Essex. Meanwhile the tall, bald guitarist moved with rapid, jerky motions from side to side of the stage, mouth in an “o”, looking like a demented seaside fairground attraction. Throw a ball in Wilko’s mouth, win a Stratocaster.
Songs ended with a curt “Thankyew!” Dr Feelgood, which Johnson co-formed in 1971, were never ones for extravagant feelings; they left that to posh prog-rockers. A typical Feelgood song, most of which were written by Johnson, stomped along as though fuelled by Canvey Island’s oil refineries. The guitarist, a teetotaller, disliked the “pub rock” label, but that’s exactly what it was: a thirsty, no-nonsense soundtrack to the end of the working week.
Johnson left Dr Feelgood in 1977, as the punk scene he helped inspire was at its height. He went on to play in Ian Dury’s band before going solo. But he’s best remembered for his Feelgood days, and their muscular songs predominated tonight. His singing showed no sign of frailty or emotion, other than when he shouted the name of his deceased wife Irene in the middle of “Paradise”. Alison Moyet guested on a punky “Down by the Jetty Blues”; then he allowed himself a moment of sentiment with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode”, milking its “bye bye” chorus with a showman’s relish. Forget burning out and not fading away, this was the real rock-and-roll way to go. Wilko Johnson: thankyew!