Wilko Johnson – review

Koko, London

Late last year, Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the pancreas and told that he had less than a year to live. It's a prognosis that would lead almost any artist to bring their career to a crashing halt and retreat from the public eye. The 65-year-old Johnson is made of sterner stuff. Speaking with wonder of his post-diagnosis "elation" and rejecting the chemotherapy that would probably only extend his life for a few weeks, the former Dr Feelgood and Ian Dury and the Blockheads guitarist instead lined up a farewell mini-tour to thank the fans who have supported his 40-year career.

It makes for a strange and profoundly poignant atmosphere at this, the first of those valedictory shows. Flanked by former Blockheads bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe, surfing a wave of love from the crowd and looking in deceptively rude and robust health, the redoubtable Johnson eschews any mention of his condition, picks up his Telecaster and does what he has always done; he gets on with it.

Loved by Lydon, worshipped by Weller and quoted as a seminal influence by the Stranglers, Dr Feelgood were the pub rockers who paved the way for punk, and their defining feature was Johnson's intense, choppy R&B guitar. Tonight he mainly raids that band's back catalogue, slamming out bluesy romps such as Roxette and Going Back Home like so many short-arm jabs to the solar plexus.

He remains a hypnotically compelling figure. Johnson may no longer be the crazed, seemingly possessed soul who looked as if he breakfasted on amphetamine sulphate during the Feelgoods' heyday, but he retains a neat line in psychotic stares delivered from under beetle brows, as he jerks, skitters and duckwalks across stage. When he pauses mid-strut to perform his signature move of machine-gunning the crowd with his 1962 guitar, he brings the house down.

He is joined by Alison Moyet for an encore duet of another two Feelgood roustabouts, All Through the City and I Don't Mind, and then the man born John Wilkinson takes his leave of us with Chuck Berry's Bye Bye Johnny as the venue transforms into a sea of hands waving him bye bye. An evening that could have been horribly mawkish has proved utterly life-affirming.

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Ian Gittins

The GuardianTramp

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