hope i die before i get old

GIG REVIEW: Wilko Johnson @ Koko Camden

16 March 2013

wilko johnsonIn 1965, when Roger Daltrey sang ‘I hope I die before I get old’, he defined a generation. Music belonged to the young, and this meant that getting old wasn’t just uncool, it was to be avoided at all costs.

The irony is that Daltrey and co – a generation who actively used rock ‘n’ roll to distance themselves from their parents – have now reached the stage in life they once demonised and decided that maybe it ain’t so bad after all. What the 21 year-old Daltrey didn’t know, you see, was that like wine, cheese and Stephen Fry, he was going to keep on getting better with age. Much like another legendary rockstar, similarly advanced in years, whom I had the pleasure of seeing recently at Koko in Camden – one Wilko Johnson, formerly of Dr Feelgood.

Who is Wilko Johnson, I hear (some of) you cry? Well, don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him. I didn’t know a great deal about Wilko myself until a good friend offered me a last-minute ticket to his gig, but I soon discovered I was being inducted into a very special circle. Wilko’s career has spanned five decades and been notable for chart hits, relentless touring and a legendary live act. In early 2013 he was diagnosed with untreatable pancreatic cancer and, refusing chemotherapy, has been given just months to live. This gig was due, in all likelihood, to be one of his last.

Stepping into Koko that night, if you forgot for a moment the rock venue setting you could quite easily have been at B&Q’s Summer Sale. The place was a sea, an actual sea, of bald heads belonging to beer-bellied men in their fifties and sixties, and I suddenly felt very young and self-consciously skinny. This was rather refreshing because these days I’m generally aware of being slightly above the average age at most gigs I go to. Prior to Wilko’s show, the most recent gig I had attended was at East London’s Queen Of Hoxton and was hosted by an edgy electro band of the sort that features more laptops than humans. Technically, I could have been approaching twice the age of some of the kids in that place, mere children who know almost nothing of Blur Vs Oasis and consider living with anything less than fibre-optic broadband to be an abuse of their human rights.

And so, standing there among a crowd of men twice my age, I was concerned about feeling like an outsider – but instead I was welcomed into the fold with open arms. Wilko fans are a wonderfully inclusive club, bursting with joie de vivre and hopelessly devoted to their idol. One guy had seen Wilko two-hundred times and received personal thank-you letters from the man himself; another was so overwhelmed at this being the last gig that he was dewy-eyed before the show even began.

The set itself was astonishing. Wilko was mesmerising, an extraordinarily accomplished musician and a guitarist unlike any I’ve seen before. He hardly said a world all night; he just played, and played gloriously, for near-on two unforgettable hours, not flagging for a single second. It was a masterclass in rock ‘n’ roll, made all the more extraordinary by his age and experience.

His style of guitar-playing is instantly recognisable. Having taught himself to play, Johnson was unrestrained by rules and so made them up as he went along, combining lead and rhythm in one bumper package. He’s basically the Buy One Get One Free of blues guitarists, easily doing the job of two players. Special mention should also go to the rest of the band – Dylan Howe on drums and Norman Watt-Roy on bass, an absolute machine of a rhythm section. Watt-Roy (in his seventies, and also of The Blockheads) plays the bass like a 21 year-old on speed, and together they were quite easily one of the tightest and shit-hottest three-pieces I have ever seen, or can ever imagine seeing. Seething, primal, unpretentious, it was a spectacle no amount of laptops and gadgets and chaos pads will ever come close to (in my humble, and probably outdated, opinion).

At the end of the evening, I left Camden with one prevailing thought in mind. Wilko, Roger and the rest of you golden oldies, thank god you failed in your quest and actually did manage to get old. Because the world will be a far, far poorer place when you’re gone.

Chris Lightyear