Wilko Johnson has been around for a long time. He will forever be associated with Dr Feelgood, the influential rhythm and blues band, but he has done many things since leaving the band in 1977. His distinctive guitar style, as well as his affable demeanor, have made him a bit of a national treasure. After leaving Dr Feelgood Johnson joined Solid Senders and, later in 1980, The Blockheads. He has played regularly with Blockheads bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe
as The Wilko Johnson Band since leaving The Blockheads in 1981. He was a major player in the golden era of pub rock bands who defined music in the late 1970s and what was to follow.
Johnson has a singular presence on stagestaring eyes and a manic "duck-walk," which he uses to cross the stage at speed. His guitar playing remains superb and distinctive. Combining blues and rockabilly, his rhythmic pounding of the strings forms the background to many familiar songs. As one musician put it, "you hear Johnson everywhere. " When he was young, Johnson had heroes, one of whom was bassist Watt-Roy and another musician, Paul Weller. Vocalist Roger Daltrey, who Johnson saw in 1969 at a Who gig whilst he was at university, was someone with whom he had long wanted to record and he now plays regularly with Watt-Roy and is gigging with Paul Weller in T in the Park.
In July 2014 he made an album with Daltrey which has taken the charts by storm. Going Back Home
features songs written by Johnson, either singularly or with others except one Bob Dylan
cover, and is an upbeat, raucous yet carefully constructed and so listenable recording. It is bluesy, rocky and folky in parts, and the songs have been chosen with inspiration because they suit both Daltrey's vocals and Johnson's style of guitar playing. From the opening bars to the last fading chords, this is an album that just had to happen. If it had never come to fruition it would have been a huge musical loss.
Johnson's thumping, rhythmic playing, energy-driven solos and Watt-Roy's constant underpinning with solid bass rhythms were made for Daltrey's powerful, energized vocals . This album is impossible to ignore. The opening title track, co-written by Johnson and Mick Green, has effervescent guitar backing Daltry's impressive vocals, doing the song justice. Steve Weston's harmonica solo at the end is simply brilliant. "Ice on The Motorway" is a rocking, rolling, foot-tapping song sung with intensity. "I Keep it to Myself" is almost made for Daltrey and suits his mature vocal range well. Again, Weston's harmonica in the middle section soars and brings a real blues feel to the song. In Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window" Daltrey brings passion and depth whilst Johnson's guitar works perfectly alongside Weston's harmonica.
"Turned 21" is a surprise because it is a heartfelt, lilting, slow ballad and brings the pace down, setting the listener up for the following manic , upbeat "'Keep On Lovin' You" which permits Daltry a few screaming extensions to his vocals. "Some Kind Of Hero" allows Daltrey to demonstrate his quicksilver changes from yearning would-be hero to angry, jilted guy. "Sneaking Suspicion," is brilliantly structured and so familiarly 'Feelgood.' "Keep It Out Of Sight" and "Everybody's Carrying A Gun" are numbers which work for both musicians and the album finishes with the wonderful "All Through The City."
The first reaction when this album finishes is to press "play" again. The songs may seem familiarand many are. "Going Back Home" and "All through The City" appeared on Dr Feelgood's third album, Stupidity
(United Artists 1979),while "Ice On The Motorway," is on the 1981 Fresh Records album of the same name and "Going Back Home" comes from Malpractice
(Grand Records 1975). Several of the songs have made appearances on albums, EPs and live recordings but this is still an album with freshness, energy and hope from musicians seemingly having the times of their lives. Daltrey and Johnson are backed a group that clearly relishes playing together. Weston brings a distinctive blues feel to most of the tracks on which he plays with his superb harmonica playing and Watt-Roy's bass, as ever, works wonders. This is simply a great album of great songs brought together and executed by great musicians.