Wilko Johnson played one of his 'farewell shows' at Koko in Camden last night. All things being equal - and of course, they very rarely are - it'll be the last-but-one time that I see him perform. A sad occasion? In many ways yes (obviously!) but in other ways no - after all, how could it be a sad occasion when there were so many smiling faces in the room?
Support came from Eight Rounds Rapid who feature Wilko's son Simon on guitar. As they started their set they looked a bit overawed by things - maybe it was the venue, more likely the weight of expectation and the feeling that they knew that most of the audience was probably thinking something along the lines of 'Oooo doesn't he look like his Dad when he's playing?' (Incidentally a lot of them may have also found themselves thinking 'Oooo that singer looks a bit like Lee Brilleaux' at the same time...) Simon plays a Fender Telecaster, chopping out chords without the aid of a plectrum - I hope the inevitable comparisons to his Dad don't cloud the fact that they're a very good band in their own right, although Simon has got to get the hang of wrapping his guitar cable around the guitar strap so that it doesn't get pulled out if he inadvertently treads on it. Definitely a band to look out for.
In the interval 'Meaty, Beaty Big And Bouncy' by The Who (coincidentally it's the first album that I ever bought with my own money) played over the P.A. as the venue filled up and the atmosphere became more charged. As each song ended the cries for 'WILKO!' got louder - until just on 9 o'clock when The Who gave way to The Small Faces and 3 familiar figures dressed all in black walked out onto the stage to a welcome quite unlike any that I've previously heard at one of their shows. For the next hour-and-a-half they gave a performance that it's frankly impossible for me to be objective about. Recently Wilko has spoken about how his diagnosis of terminal cancer left him feeling 'vividly alive' - well that's exactly how the music sounded last night. Vividly alive. What an amazing turn of phrase that is. Vividly alive. As he careered across the stage during the solo in 'Everybody's Carrying A Gun' I smiled as I would guess that I always do when he starts the first solo of the evening, and then felt a strange shudder as my eyes started to water. Happiness mixed with sadness. Smiling and crying at the same time. Vividly alive.
My Dad once told me that his Dad, my Grandad who died over 10 years before I was born, used to often say 'nothing good lasts forever', then follow it a few seconds later with 'nothing bad lasts forever either'. He'd seen enough in two World Wars to know what he was talking about. I thought of him last night, a man that I could sadly never meet but whose words suddenly seemed to sum up the moment only too well. Wilko's shows have always been occasions to savour - well, they have been for me anyway - and while last night was no exception it was impossible to ignore just why there were so many people in the sold out venue, all of whom seemed to be hanging on to every second for as long as they possibly could. Well, I certainly was. Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe matched him move for move and note for note, Dr. Feelgood classics collided with solo material, Alison Moyet joined in for encores of 'I Don't Mind' and 'All Through The City' - but this was Wilko's night, as all the remaining shows will be Wilko's night. But it was our night too. And that's alright. As he wrestled manfully with a broken string that all-but-scuppered 'Bye Bye Johnny' (and oh what a poignant song choice, given that Wilko's real name is John Wilkinson) I couldn't help but notice that he had a huge grin on his face, probably the biggest that I'd ever seen him have, at least until the end of the final blistering encore of 'Twenty Yards Behind' was met with a reaction that's among the most genuinely heartfelt that I've ever heard from an audience. The house lights came up to reveal more smiles than I've seen in one place in a long time. I hope that there was one on Wilko's face too. There was certainly one on mine. Vividly alive indeed.