Wilko Johnson and his band bring the sound of Rock n Roll back to York Barbican
By John Hayhurst
Photos by John Hayhurst – snapagig.com
There is an overwhelming simplicity to this, a 3 piece band, playing classic R&B tunes for an hour and a half with no backdrop (just a black curtain), no huge light show or need to occupy the whole of the stage. It’s breathtakingly perfect, a stripped back no nonsense honest showcase of what old school rock and roll music should feel like.
Wilko Johnson should by all accounts be pushing up the daisies in a Canvey Island cemetery, his terminal pancreatic cancer eradicated by a last minute life saving surgical procedure two years ago, has put him back on the road in front of his adoring fans. I was at some of those supposedly last gigs of his life, where grown men wept as he played ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ for the last time – and now we have tears of joy in our eyes again, but due to the relief and enhanced appreciation of watching him play live once more.
Lots of smiles on people’s faces and we are sat down for a change, the previous venues he has played regularly in York would be Fibbers and The Duchess, two original smoke filled low stage/low ceiling venues, this is a palace compared to those places and his stage set up is in the centre, completely dwarfed by the size of the available platform.
First up though is Mollie Marriott and her band. Mollie is mod icon Steve Marriott’s (Small Faces/Humble Pie) daughter, and so there is a certain expectation to live up to here. It’s also just the day after the anniversary of her father’s death, so you could expect some nerves and emotion filling the room. However, if you were expecting a cheeky East London style tomboy throwing a little guitar leg strut in a parker jacket, then you were very, very wrong. Mollie Marriott is proper rock chic, immaculately dressed in a black tassled top, leather/pvc style black trousers with knee tears and curls of blonde hair ready to shake.
Her band pull out some classic rock style tunes and her vocals are blisteringly soulful, clear and precise. It’s like an exercise in how to be a female rock vocalist, effortlessly pulling audio illustrations of a young Elkie Brooks, Janis Joplin and even a splash of Pat Benatar in the mix.
Mollie is no stranger to this venue having played just the previous week supporting Paul Weller, maybe that helped with any stage nerves as she clearly owned her short set here. Playing tracks from her new album soon to be released, her soulful gravelly vocal kept this audience completely enthralled.
Marriott isn’t frightened to tackle another big voice, as she clearly had a lot of fun with Aretha Franklin’s ‘Baby I Love You’, and saved the best for last with her new thumping rock track ‘Control’. So many people tonight talking about her as they disappeared to the bar at half time.
Let’s be honest, no one came here tonight for guitar histrionics, pyrotechnics, stunning light shows and stage diving escapades. We came to witness a master of his own choppy guitar style, a three piece R’n’B band playing songs we all know and love, and that’s exactly what we got, we could have written the setlist ourselves. This is the last night of the tour and so Wilko and his band will be tearing it up before enjoying a day of rest tomorrow in York (although he does turn up to an open mic session in the town the following night !!).
Opening with ‘All Right’ and the opening line “I have got my eyes on you…” is literally exactly what happens, that wide eyed stare across from stage to audience is a trademark of his, complete with a sideways shuffle, the strut move from his base position at the mic to the drums – but no further, he has his space invisibly marked in his head and just works to that .
Meanwhile, the ‘man with the bass and the face from outta space’ Norman Watt-Roy, produces bass runs that any guitarist would envy. His legacy with Ian Dury and the Blockheads is available for everyone to see and hear, now a permanent fixture with Wilko and what a combination. Sometimes it’s hard to see where Norman ends and the bass begins, I think he is welded to it, allowing himself a little shuffle and the occasional raise of his left leg to emphasise a note, Watt-Roy nods his head through every riff and beat, never missing a trick even with his back to Wilko most of the time.
Dylan Howe is the final member of the three piece and unassumingly distant but essential in keeping the whole thing in order. He does get a chance to shine during ‘Everybody’s Carrying a Gun’ a mini solo and extenuating Wilko’s tommy gun chop riff with a timely snare rattle. It’s a great effect and with Wilko stood at the front glaring down at you and firing with all his might, it could easily be an excerpt from a 50’s gangster movie.
‘Going Back Home’ and ‘Roxette’ are classic Dr Feelgood tunes recreated tonight in front of some of these original fans from back in the 70’s. Wilko prowls the stage left and right with his curly red guitar lead almost recoiling him back every time he tries to get away. His voice might not be as raw as Lee Brilleaux but it has enough punch for one and a half hours entertainment and it’s his moves, character and guitar playing that we have all come to witness one more time.
The final one two are usually ‘Back in the Night’ and ‘She Does it Right’ and sure enough that’s exactly what we get, a no nonsense show with all the hits you know and love, delivered with the panache of a competent musician who knows what he is good at, and delivers exactly what his audience want. A simple wave and thank you from the stage and Wilko is off, but then back again for ‘Bye Bye Johnny’.
I saw Chuck Berry play on this very stage almost 22 years ago to the day, and it struck me that the modern day Berry is very much alive and well in the form of Wilko Johnson and his band, it’s not dead yet and neither is Wilko – so let’s have some more of that rock and roll music!
Wilko Johnson and Mollie Marriott played at York Barbican on Saturday 22nd April 2017