Wednesday, September 27, 2017

70 not out

It doesn't seem that long ago that the name Wilko Johnson was everywhere. And it's not that long ago that it was, in relative terms at least, nowhere. Everywhere and nowhere baby... it's certainly been an unprecedented few years for the Canvey Island assassin, from his unforgettable appearance in the Dr. Feelgood documentary 'Oil City Confidential' and his subsequent 'who'd have thought it?' recruitment to the cast of 'Game Of Thrones' to his now-well-known diagnosis and subsequent cure from cancer it's been an extraordinary time. Last night he played a 70th birthday show at no lesser venue than The Royal Albert Hall. Strange days indeed. I went along with my good friend Pete Sargeant who was reviewing the night for 'Blues Matters' magazine - as we settled into our seats we reflected on how we - all of us - had got to where we were. Pete used to see The Feelgoods in the London pubs before they started making records whereas I missed the band with Wilko on guitar - I was a bit young, and anyway I didn't have any friends to go to see a band like them with. But however you look at it the band made an indelible impression on us both as they did with so many people.

Our evening starts by coming full circle (if that's not too much of a contradiction in terms) as Eight Rounds Rapid take to the stage. Simon 'son-of-Wilko' Johnson prowls around as Dave the singer tells us that his mate's a bit tight, but he's alright. They're a great band - see them in a pub or club and they'll blow your head off, but in The RAH they have trouble ruffling each other's hair. It's not their fault of course - this is simply the wrong venue for them, they're not loud enough and seem dwarfed by their surroundings. Mind you, who wouldn't be? After their set I bump into Cadiz Records supremo Richard England and Vive Le Rock editor Eugene Butcher. They're even more disappointed by what they just saw and are looking for a bar to drink away the memory in - there are enough of them to choose from but I can't help thinking that there isn't enough money in the world to get drunk here. 

Next up is Benjamin Tehoval, a one-man band who manages to operate an electric guitar, some bass pedals, a kick drum and his voice simultaneously and at the same time. He also manages to get much of the audience wondering what the hell he was doing there. When he was told that there was only time for one more song he played 'Like A Rolling Stone' - that's six minutes of our lives that none of us will ever get back again. Pete thought it was funny, I thought it was the sort of thing that only a hopeless hippie who was sufficiently self-obsessed as to not care about the rest of the evening would do. Oh well - it wouldn't do for us all to like the same thing now would it?

Next up ladeez 'n' gennelmen, The Bard Of Salford himself, Dr. John Cooper Clarke. As a long term fan of the great man I was naturally delighted by his presence whereas Pete took the opportunity to catch up some much-needed sleep. Well as I say, it wouldn't do for us all to like the same thing... among the unmissable moments he, er, missed was a previously unheard (by me at least) tale of our hero making enough money to hire a 'snooty butler' who he assumed would be available whenever his services were required; when he came in from a gig at 2 a.m. to find said butler wearing a 'wife-beater vest' and responding to his asking for 'a couple of rounds of Mickie Most and a mug of splosh' with the words 'your dietary requirements are no concerns of mine' he replaced him with a chimpanzee. Genius.

Interval time - looking around the venue it was all a bit... 'nice' if you know what I mean. Whilst it was impossible not to be impressed by our surroundings, having seen Wilko countless times over the last 40 (40!) years it was all a bit incongruous. For every rocker in t-shirt and jeans there seemed to be several people who looked as though they'd come straight from Harrods. Maybe they had? 

9.40 on the dot and it's time for the main event - Norman Watt-Roy looks out into the auditorium and mouths 'Wow!' as Wilko plugs in and 'All Right' crackles into life. 'If You Want Me, You've Got Me' follows before the always-excellent 'Dr. Dupree' slows things down a bit - but only a bit. There's already drops of sweat on the floor of Norman's side of the stage as they swing into 'Roxette' - and suddenly it's early 1975 and I'm calling my mum in from the kitchen as Dr. Feelgood roar through an unforgettable (for me at least) rendition of the song on 'The Geordie Scene', changing my life in the process. I didn't stop talking about it for days - to be honest I'm not sure that I've stopped talking about it much ever since. Here it gets the muted approval of the all-to-polite audience, as does the rest of the set - how often have the band played for over an hour to a fully-seated audience? It takes the final one-two sucker punch of 'Back In The Night'  and 'She Does It Right' to finally break the spell and get a few people onto their feet - the security staff who up until this point had been unsubtly stopping people from doing anything as anarchic as taking photos swung even more unsubtly into action, but at least there was a bit of atmosphere at last. As demands for an encore grew Simon's amplifier was set up and speculation as to who would be joining the band was rife - I doubt that few if any had expected that the special guest to be JCC playing Simon's barely audible Telecaster on 'Bye Bye Johnny', but that was what they got. As the crew readied themselves to take the gear off the stage the band returned once more, sending the security staff into meltdown in the process - 'Route 66' bombed out the last pockets of resistance, and everybody (except I suspect the afore-mentioned security staff) went home happy. 

Or did they? On the train home I reflected on what we'd all just seen. As previously stated I've been watching Wilko play live for four decades. I saw him on his first post-Feelgoods tour and I've watched him ever since through thick and thin, playing blistering, heart-stopping shows everywhere from  small, smoky, sweaty back rooms of pubs to large outdoor festivals and all points in between, in front of handfuls to hundreds to thousands of people - it's strange to see him now, after the trauma of the last few years, as a successful act playing bigger and bigger venues to so many people wearing his name on their chests. This wouldn't, indeed couldn't have happened at any other point in his career, and it's great that it's happened now - but has he lost something in the process? It was a great gig and an event to have been at, but I have a suspicion - indeed, a sneakin' suspicion - that he just might have...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Scotland Calling

Time for a quick progress report from North Of The Border, written at the times and in the places indicated, a little garbled here and there but left unedited...

Thursday 14th, 10.56 am, Room 52 at The Bothwell Bridge Hotel in Glasgow.

I like Scotland. It's a great country isn't it? and it's always a great place to play. We've got five shows in five days here this week - excellent. 
We - Ruts D.C. (Dave, Segs and myself) with our sound man Bob and merch girl Rhiannon - travelled up to Glasgow yesterday on the 12.30 pm train from Euston Station while our 'new' driver Harry (I don't mean that he's never driven before, it's just the first time that we've worked with him!) had made the epic journey North in his bus with all our equipment, stopping off to see family and friends on the way. He'd also dropped my ailing amp off at the Marshall factory on the way - it stopped working a few songs into our performance at The Undercover Festival in Margate last Saturday. Bugger! I'm hopeful that there's not much wrong with it as the lights were still on but there was definitely no one home... thankfully there was a spare amp available so the show continued (rather well as it happens) but it's obviously something that has got to be sorted out. 
Last night's gig at The Audio sold out - not bad for a Wednesday night eh? Ok, it's not the biggest venue in the World, but a sell out is a sell out... although I'm currently hampered by a deaf right ear (Earwax! Bah!) I think we played well - tonight we're in Dundee where we've played a couple of times before. I remember the first time being a great night while the second one was a slightly odd evening which wasn't too well attended (not much promotion apparently) and the support band played 'Staring At The Rude Boys'. Strange. Let's see what happens this time.

Friday 15th, 11.10 am leaving Dundee.

'It's all glamour this rock 'n' roll lark' thought Leigh as he helped Harry carry a speaker cabinet up the seemingly endless flights of stairs. As he stumbled breathlessly through the double doors leading into the venue he thanked gawd that the cabinet was on wheels while The Lurkers looked down on him from the wall near the bar. My heart's in the shadow - well it feels as though it's going to burst through my shirt to be honest. It's great to be in show business... there's a statue of Desperate Dan a few hundred yards away in the town centre - we could perhaps do with him here now. 
Five-and-a-bit hours later my heart once again felt as though it might burst through my shirt, only this time for a very different reason. We'd just played an excellent (even though I say so myself!) set at a very appreciative audience and all was right with the world. We added 'Tears On Fire' to the set, a tricky song to play but I thought that we did it well - we'd ran through it during a sound check that also included 'Suffragette City' and a new song called 'Innocent' which isn't finished yet but is showing great promise. The Beat Generator turned out to be a great venue (it'd be even better if it had a bloomin' lift!) and the riskily - named Invercarse Hotel was a nice hotel. It would have been good to have spent a bit more time there but the road to Aberdeen beckons. Get in the van Leigh - it's all glamour, this rock 'n' roll lark...

Saturday 15th, 10.42 am Room 217 at The Douglas Hotel in Aberdeen.

Victory from the jaws of defeat. That's quite a saying isn't it? I wonder where it comes from? It was used more than a few times last night, and not without reason - Drummonds is a good venue for any number of reasons (not least the girls behind the bar) but sadly the P.A. system isn't one of them. Bob is something of a wizard in my not-so-humble-opinion, and he needed all of his magical powers last night - a fraught sound check nearly fell apart when Segs uttered the immortal words 'we might as well just all get pissed, I can't hear a thing'. Not the best thought to have. 
Fast forward three hours and the place is packed  - The Media Whores are on stage and the sound is... ok... much better than earlier anyway. That's a relief. I wonder how we'll get on? 
Two hours later I'm wringing my shirt out in the dressing room. A great gig. A really great gig. Audience fantastic. Band sounded great. Thank Christ for that. From the jaws of defeat indeed. 

Sunday 16th, 11.31 am Room 304 at The Holiday Inn in Edinburgh.

It's our last day and indeed night in Scotland. Shame. These have been great gigs, with some wonderful moments.If you'd have been at La Belle Angele last night you'd have seen a brave attempt at '20th Century Boy' (Marc Bolan had died 40 years ago to the day) during an eventful rendition of 'In A Rut' which also the stage being plunged into total (and I mean total) darkness when the stage lights failed. Apparently there was a problem with the lighting desk - they also went off during  'Love In Vain' which resulted in more than a few, erm, jazz chords from your humble narrator. Let's hope that never makes it onto YouTube... the sound check also featured an unexpected incident when Psychic Investor Mark (during the PledgeMusic campaign for 'Music Must Destroy' you could become a Psychic Investor which meant that you could come to sound checks) responded to Segs's question 'any requests?' with the words 'Out Of Order' - I reckon that song was last played sometime in 1980 when the band was still The Ruts. We had a go. That's all I'm saying! We also had another go at 'Innocent' which I'm hoping will turn out to be a really good song; it might even make it to the stage sometime in this batch of gigs. Then again it might not - we played an 18 song set with a 3 song encore so it might be more of a case of 'what do we leave out?' rather than 'when do we play it?' Still that's not a bad problem to have. Maybe it's not a problem at all? 
Tonight we play in Falkirk. I've never been there before. We leave at midday so I'd better get my gear together.

Monday 18th, 12.35 pm on the train home.

Well that was a funny old night. It was an odd show to end on - we played well but the audience seemed rather subdued resulting in us thinking that we weren't going down very well. However as so often happens this wasn't the case - when we spoke to people afterwards many said that it was the best show that they'd ever seen at The Warehouse. And one person went further, observing that 'this is Sunday night in Scotland - everybody's been drinking since Friday afternoon'. Oh and The Bay City Rollers were apparently also playing in Falkirk last night, although I for one am not sure how that effected things. But however you look at it, it's been a pleasure to be in Scotland - but as previously discussed, it usually is.

So - was the Falkirk show any good? Click here to find out!