The Waterfront, Norwich, March 1st 2014
There are two things certain in life and both were evident at the Waterfront Blues Festival in Norwich this evening. Let's get the allusive first out of the way - Wilko Johnson has terminal pancreatic cancer. The second - well, it's just that you've got to love the high-octane fuel and energy that is rock 'n roll.
When Wilko and the band came on they drew an abrupt line under what had gone before. That was OK, but this is what we'd been waiting for. And it was very much a band performance - no indulgent front man basking in the spotlight, just three musicians creating a cooperative space for human recreation on the narrow canvas of a wooden stage.
Neither was it about age or nostalgia, although the audience demographic might have been better represented at a Saga convention than among the student population of Norwich. No, this was people remembering, celebrating a musical genre, harking back to an time when songs were stripped back to the essentials. Three men can make a dramatic noise. One guitar can generate both rhythm and melody, without added effects.
This was a gig to make everyone want to go out and buy a Telecaster. Black with red pick-guard. Or a Fender Jazz bass. Or a drum-kit and attempt, in a hopeless thrashing of inanimate materials, to recreate a portion of the magnetism and force generated together by Norman Watt-Roy, Dylan Howe and Wilko. Transcending the everyday and fashioning the memorable.
Gods and ghosts
The first law of thermodynamics:- energy is neither created or destroyed. Well make no mistake energy was created here, and if the audience had the vigour they used to they'd have been pogoing back in time, all the way to the Hope and Anchor in Islington, where as a callow youth in the Seventies I watched a former version of Wilko machine gun an audience with his guitar - as he did again tonight – a scowl or grin never far from his face.
It was also a reminder that music doesn't have to be complicated, and that the rhythmic structure of the twelve bar blues can deliver an infinite variety of colour and sound. Well, as infinite anyway as the frantic pounding of your pulse in slightly deafened ears. Or colourful as the devil's own blood when a life was traded for music at Johnson's crossroads. It has that bass, that beat.
Yet this is not a review but an observation: what we achieve in life survives us, whether it's our music, personality or the memories left to our kids. Others could better describe the vortex of melody and rhythm left on the stage, the relentless pounding of clinical sound, or the crescendo of the encore, crisp notes cutting through a fevered atmosphere, the arms of the crowd raised in homage and belief. By the end Wilko must have been exhausted, and if there was an inevitability to the fatigue, it shows thermodynamics to be wide of the mark. The creation of music, that ultimate nonsense of energy and zest over the duration of an evening, comes at a cost.
Yet here is also clear evidence that we as people can be better, exist in harmony, create instead of destroy. But I am getting beyond myself - it's just a humble group of three men and an entourage of helpers, roadies, friends and families behind the flimsiest of scenes. They travel around, make music, shake hands then move on.
I missed the opportunity to meet them after the gig, to tell them all this, as I could have. But that omission on reflection preserves a valuable mystique. Our idols should perhaps stay just that, on the pedestal of the stage. Preserved in time and space, three dimensional. Brave. So instead, when I get home I'll drag the Yamaha Tele copy from its hiding place in the wardrobe, strut and pose in front of the mirror, and maybe again try the lick from Roxette.
Or Back in the Night...
More about the band at www.wilkojohnson.com