Wilko Johnson is a name that I had often seen on the Fibbers listings, but hadn’t really thought about going to see. In that respect, he is a bit like Dr. Feelgood, the band he made his name with. However, when it was announced earlier this year that he had been diagnosed with cancer and was, instead of opting for treatment, heading out on a farewell tour, I was disappointed that the closest he was coming to York was Holmfirth. I thought I had missed my opportunity.
Then, sometime back in June (I think) there was another announcement to the effect that he was still feeling well enough to perform at a handful of Summer festivals, one of which would be York’s DV8 where he would be closing proceedings on the Sunday night. Plans were hatched and, amid the tightest ticket security we have ever encountered at Fibbers (e-tickets only, to prevent touting, and an actual bar-code scanner) four of us entered the venue to find it about as full as it could be. We settled for a position to the side of the sound desk, the raised area giving us a pretty good view of the stage, despite the large crowd.
Support came from People’s Republic Of Mercia, a pub-rock/rhythm-and-blues band from Birmingham who have opened for Wilko a number of times in the past and about which there seems to be little information on the internet. The opening track was slightly funky with choppy guitars. Andy turned to me and said, “This is very Dr. Feelgood.” I wouldn’t know as the only track I can remember by them is Milk And Alcohol and, somehow, that fact led to a somewhat confused conversation. The set continued with a more bluesy number, the music stopping and starting and lots of lines beginning “I Love You”. The band were joined by a harmonica player for the next couple of tracks, the first of which was more lively but still bluesy, with most lines this time seeming to start with “Love me”. The vocals were good and clear throughout the set, perhaps an advantage of standing so close to the sound desk, and there was a nice mix of music. One track had hints of ska and punk throughout, while another was more rock ‘n’ roll than rhythm and blues, reminding me a little of Roll Over Beethoven. At one point Andy turned to me and said that they weren’t doing much for him, but as he said it I could see his foot tapping. Personally, I thought they were OK. Unfortunately, when they finished their set Andy and I decided to head back out for a quick pint. By the time we got back…
…not only had Wilko started his set (with a much quicker break between bands than we were led to believe) but the venue had filled up even more, making it incredibly hot and sweaty. Andy, being taller than me, headed off towards the packed floor area while I decided to stand as close as I could to where I was before, even if my view of the stage wasn’t quite as good as it had been. In fact, I barely saw anything of Wilko – occasional fleeting glimpses of him as he strutted across the stage, his black shirt against the dark backdrop meaning that I was seeing what amounted to a goggle-eyed space invader criss-crossing the stage. Each song seemed to be greeted by a bigger cheer than the last, although few were introduced, meaning I had pretty much no idea what they were. I managed to pick out Roxette and Keep On Loving You which, with its lyric of “’til the day I die” took on an extra degree of poignancy. The instrumental sections weren’t about screaming guitar solos but enthralling, foot-tapping music and there were often extended drum and bass sections when the songs were introduced. By the time he had started Don’t Let Your Daddy Know, it had become noticeable that the crowd was moving forward at a glacial pace, with space opening up behind the main section. It was nice to see Fibbers as full as it could be but there was a tinge of sadness given the circumstances. The main set was drawing to a close with Back In The Night, and “something I wrote back in the fab seventies” which segued into She Does It Right. Looking across to my left I could see another of our party Dad-dancing. As the set ended and Wilko left the stage the crowd enthusiastically showed their appreciation. If only applause could heal… There was an encore of Bye Bye Johnny and the sight of Wilko playing his guitar behind his head was greeted by more rapturous applause.
I had taken what would probably be my last chance to see a legend and, perhaps inevitably given the circumstances, had barely actually seen him. But the music was brilliant and the crowd, the vast majority of which were more knowledgeable than me had been well and truly entertained. It is probably appropriate that the longer term fans got to see more than I did and, if any lessons are to be learned they would be to a) take your opportunities to see acts you are interested in before it’s too late and b) when you have a good vantage point, try not to lose it.