Some would argue that Wilko Johnson was the vital ingredient that made the early Dr Feelgood a great band. His partnership with Lee Brilleaux is still regarded as something special in the annals of British Rhythm and Blues and Oil City Confidential Live set out to celebrate the early days of the band, from the pub rock circuit in London to chart topping success with the live album, Stupidity.
The man himself has had a lot of good things to say about Julian Temple’s film so it was no surprise that Wilko gave a substantial nod in the direction of his early Dr Feelgood songs , as well as the usual mixture of his later output and a few standards that have influenced him over the years. Not that this bothered the crowd that packed into the Robin 2 as they were treated to a storming set with Wilko on top machine-gunning form.
The task of setting the scene for the early years of Dr Feelgood was left to Mark Radcliffe, of Radio 2, Mark and Lard, and Radcliffe and Maconie fame, and The Big Figures, named after the original Dr Feelgood drummer.
A frustrated rock star, Radcliffe has had a string of bands including the micky-taking Shire Horses and the more serious folk oriented the Family Mahone. The Big Figures are billed as a Dr Feelgood tribute band and Mark has certainly spent some time in front of the mirror laying down the Lee Brilleaux signature moves; the tucked in chin with the mic grasped close to the chest as if it’s trying to get away and the characteristic finger jabbing. He may be the recognisable one but the other band members have their own R ‘n’ B pedigree which becomes obvious from the opening bars of Feelgoods’ standards Talking About You and I Can Tell. PJ Walmsley on guitar and Johnny Jobson on harmonica lends a lot to the original sound and Mark Radcliffe hits the right spot when producing a Brilleaux-like growl.
They also look the part to a degree, all dressed in suits Feelgoods’ style. But except for Mark the general effect is more of a set of RBS employees letting their hair down than a set of hard bitten R ‘n’ B veterans. Mark on the other hand does look as if his suit has been rolled up in the back of a van and driven up and down the A13 hundreds of times, just like the Brilleaux original.
They may be a tribute band and Mark has all the patter with tales of Bilston being their second home, abusing Olympic swimmers in the process, but the music is as serious as if it were their own. The set also highlights the influence of other British R ‘n’ B luminaries on Dr Feelgood; Mick Jupp with Cheque Book and Lew Lewis with Lucky 7.
Wilko Johnson took to the stage along with Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe with no real razzmatazz which seems to be the way that he likes it. In contrast to The Big Figures there is no chat or indeed much interaction with the audience just straight into the usual perpetual motion, Wilko marching around the stage and Norman hunched over the bass fingers blurring over the fret board.
Both men have distinctive but different styles, Wilko creating such a wide variety of sounds almost effortlessly whilst Norman seems to put every possible physical effort into every note, and he plays a lot of notes! So much so, that by the time Roxette appeared in the set he looked as if someone had poured a bucket of water over him. Sneaking Suspicion, Don’t Let Your Daddy Know and When I’m Gone speed by and then it’s time for audience participation with Woolly Bully.
Dylan Howe seems to have brought another dimension to the band with a more jazz oriented approach, but the years of familiarity with Norman Watt-Roy in the Blockheads is also plain to see. The pair lay down the foundation for Wilko to do his stuff.
Then Wilko found his speaking voice and announced that they were going to do a couple of songs that he’d written back in the ’70s before ending the set with Back in the Night and She Does it Right, two songs that did more than any others to cement the Feelgoods’ success in 1975.
The encore was a mammoth Bye Bye Johnny with Wilko machine gunning the audience and the relentless Norman looking as if he could carry on for another set.
Review – Ian Gelling
Photos – Steph Colledge