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Review: Wilko Johnston back from the dead for live blues

Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival Marquee, Belfast

By Andrew Johnston

Published 11/05/2015

Wilko Johnson
Wilko Johnson

A near-death battle with cancer has done wonders for Wilko Johnson's pulling power, as evidenced by Saturday night’s packed Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (CQAF) gig.

The marquee was heaving, something of a change from Johnson’s most recent previous visit to Belfast, when he played to a rather more ‘selective’ audience at the Oh Yeah Music Centre.

But Johnson’s resolve in the face of 2013’s devastating prognosis inspired the nation and drew a new set of fans to the ex-Dr Feelgood man’s unreconstructed rhythm and blues.

And so, making up for a cancelled CQAF date last year, the 67-year-old maverick was back on a Belfast stage, clad in customary black, yanking his Fender Telecaster to and fro.

There are literally zero frills with Johnson’s live show.

It’s just him, virtuoso bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe, pounding out Dr Feelgood classics like Roxette, Back in the Night and She Does It Right, as well as some of Johnson’s similarly blistering solo material.

Indeed, lesser known fare such as When I’m Gone and Everybody’s Carrying a Gun proved to be among the most electrifying performances of the evening.

The anthemic Going Back Home — as re-recorded for Johnson’s hugely successful 2014 collaborative album with the Who’s Roger Daltrey — was another highlight.

Yet as much as the goodwill was overflowing in Belfast, an objective ear could identify that Johnson isn’t quite the vocalist he is the guitarist.

He may have written all these tunes, but there’s a reason he usually gets someone else to sing them, and the late Lee Brilleaux’s contribution to the sound of Dr Feelgood should never be underestimated.

Still, with many of the tracks descending into lively jams, the microphone was left unattended for a lot of the night, allowing the crowd to revel in Johnson’s peerless, finger-shredding fretwork.

Long may he continue.

Four stars

Belfast Telegraph

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