Monday, 6 September 2010

Wilko on wheels

I went to see Wilko Johnson at the Half Moon in Putney on Saturday night – my first proper blues gig for some time, I’m ashamed to say. Watching the great man up close and personal – from a position just a few feet from the stage – was a remarkable experience.

For those who haven’t seen Wilko, or the fabulous Oil City Confidential documentary about Dr Feelgood, the first thing to say is that he looks odd enough when he’s stationary. Bald, boggle-eyed and intense, dressed all in black, he sings into the mic and thrashes away at his stylish guitar (matt black with a shiny red fingerplate) in his own unique manner. (My friend Chris, who understands more about these things than I do, says he manages to play lead and rhythm guitar at the same time, which ought to be impossible.)

But it’s when the verse ends that it gets truly strange. Freed from the need to stand still, Wilko suddenly veers across the stage, extremely fast, soloing as he goes, with an almost trance-like expression on his face. Given that, from the audience, you can’t see his legs, you end up wondering if he’s on wheels, because surely no one can move that fast sideways. Sometimes, by way of variation, he shoots up to the front of the stage and back again, and it’s like an effect a cameraman might try, zooming in and out while keeping the subject in focus.

Meanwhile, off to one side of the stage, bassist Norman Watt-Roy is feeling every note, hunched over his guitar and sweating profusely as he twists and turns and grimaces and gurns. He’s the antithesis of the Bill Wyman school of bass playing.

With all this going on, it’s easy to forget about the music, a powerful, percussive r’n’b, including a few Feelgood classics for the old-timers in the audience (which was most of us). It’s just a shame that Wilko barely uttered a word from the moment he arrived on stage to the moment he left. I thought he might have wanted to share a few stories from his long, strange career. But clearly he prefers to let his guitar do the talking.