I will admit its taken me a while to get around to watching The Wilko Johnson Band’s Live At Koko DVD but, having seen him live on the same tour, literally inches away from me at The Fermain Tavern, some distance and perspective was needed.
In this case that distance and perspective has given the concert something else as well.
Recorded during Wilko’s farewell tour soon after his diagnosis with terminal cancer the guitarist was riding a wave of not only publicity but also a new-found appreciation for his work.
A year and a bit later, long after doctors predicted his death, things seem to be looking up for Wilko, but it is clear here that regardless of the situation, a lot of the out pouring of energy from the crowd is genuine, much as it was when Wilko visited Guernsey making this concert a great celebration.
Onto the set itself, while the crowd explode for pretty much every move and gesture Wilko makes it does take a few songs for the band to warm up, I would suggest this might down to the extra pressure of being on film and the other circumstances, however once they get rolling, and they hit a couple of Dr. Feelgood numbers, this soon passes.
On the reasonable sized stage of Koko, Wilko is given free rein to do his ‘skittering’ motion and he moves around with impressive speed for a man of his age and genuinely seems elated at the response he is receiving from the crowd which he uses to drive the show.
While Wilko is buzzing about the stage Norman Watt-Roy spends most of the show rooted in front of his Trace Elliot stack lost in a reverie as his fingers dance over “the old faith ‘n’ grace”.
When he does need to he moves forward for his backing vocals and solos but mostly he gives Wilko space, but none the less his playing is excellent and engaging just through seeing how intimately connected he is with his instrument. The audience even get a few “Norman, Norman” chants in as well, showing there is respect and admiration for more than just Johnson.
Drummer Dylan Howe is his usual tight self, adding a jazzy flavour where he can to the fairly straight R’n’B beats that Johnson’s music requires and, while his drum solo isn’t the best I’ve heard, it still serves its purpose and probably felt a lot better if you were actually there – drum solos often work better that way in my experience.
The setlist mixes Wilko’s ‘solo’ numbers with classics from his time with Dr. Feelgood and it is those that get the biggest reaction and, while Johnson’s voice is a far cry from Lee Brilleaux’s it really is his guitar that is the star of the show and his unique choppy style is showcased excellently both in the sound mix and the film editing.
The filming of the show is interesting, if not entirely successful. With a bit of a sense of trying to have lo-fi edge there are moments where it harks back to the punk footage of the late 70s and early 80s, which actually suits the music quite well, but it never seems to commit to totally wanting to be that basic or trying to be a slick bigger budget concert movie. That is just a quibble though as director Harry Stein still does a good job of capturing the spirit and energy of the show.
For the encore the band are joined by Alison Moyet for a couple of songs and her and Wilko have a great chemistry that surprisingly, other than the recent work with Roger Daltrey, actually brings something of the old Feelgood dynamic back.
Ending the set on an extended Johnny B. Goode/Bye Bye Johnny may be a fairly standard thing for Wilko, but its clear here that the emotion of the event gets to both him and the audience as they all sing and play their hearts out in a reverie of, no doubt mixed, emotions.
After the emotional high of Bye Bye Johnny the band end the set on Twenty Yards Behind that is easy to overlook but ends things on a R’n’B high and, had this been Wilko’s recorded send off, would have been a great way to bow out – thankfully though, as I said earlier, there has been more music and hopefully more still to come making this a great record of a great show under genuinely unique circumstances.
Across the hour and a bit Wilko takes us through his life story, of course focusing on Dr. Feelgood, The Blockheads and his solo work, but also his life before becoming a professional musician and his more recent extra curricular interests.
What is really striking in this is what a remarkable polymath he is, with an evidently genuine love of Milton and Shakespeare, alongside having been what you could only call a hippie at the tail end the 60s, but underneath it all the time there being this love of rock ‘n’ roll and the blues that we get to see on stage.
This interview works really well as a companion to Zoe Howe’s book on Wilko, Looking Back At Me, Julien Temple’s Oil City Confidential and, alongside the concert footage (both the main feature and the older clips in the extras) makes this DVD an excellent record of Wilko, both on and off stage.