Saturday, 5 November 2011

Back in the night

Went to see Wilko Johnson at the Oyster Fleet hotel in Canvey Island last Sunday with my mate Robert. We had an agreeable pre-gig drink at The Lobster Smack, past the gas silos down Haven Road.

It’s a lovely old pub, clad in white weather boarding and sheltering beneath the huge earth banks topped by the concrete sea wall. A sign outside revealed how the pub was used by smugglers, who could nip out of their boats through the back door and take their dodgy goods to Hadleigh and Rayleigh. So nothing much has changed there then.

It’s also featured in Great Expectations as The Sluice House, the riverside pub where Pip and Magwitch stay when they attempt to return the transported felon to Australia. It still has low ceilings and old beams and apart from the laminated menus can’t have changed much since Dickens time. From the pub you can climb up on to the sea wall and view the tide lapping impatiently at the other side waiting for a breach. And see the tremendously long and useless old jetty designed for the never-completed Occidental oilworks and the marshland stretching off towards Coryton. A great place to have a drink.

As for Wilko, the former Dr Feelgood legend and greatest living Englishman comes on stage with a minimum of fuss. He has the most amazing face these days; a bald veiny head, huge eyebrows and mad stare. No wonder he recently got a part as the mute executioner Ilyn Payne, in fantasy series Game of Thrones. All he had to do was look dangerous, which comes easily.

His first song, Everyone’s Carrying a Gun, adds to the general feel of lunacy as he careers across the stage with his trademark guitar bursts. An added plus is that we also get Norman Watt-Roy on bass, famed for his time with another Essex legend Ian Dury. He performs some amazing funky solos and you realise just what a good musician he is. He also has a bald head, staring eyes and like Wilko looks like he would make an admirable villain in Harry Potter. Meanwhile there’s a younger drummer working admirably hard to keep up with the old codgers.

The room is sweaty and packed with 300 people. The old Feelgood favourites are there, starting with Sneakin’ Suspicion and the Canvey lyric of Wilko looking at the flares by the river. It’s not quite the same without Lee Brilleaux of course, but Wilko is a great performer in his own right. Then Wilko brings on a harmonica player for a storming Roxette.

“This is a song I wrote in those brilliant seventies,” he says before performing Back In The Night, scattergunning riffs into the night. There’s She Does It Right too, with Wilko holding his guitar up by his head and machine gunning the audience. Then a great Paradise and an impassioned cry of “Irene Irene Irene!”

It feels like some mad convention of Essex eccentricity with electricity as Wilko puts his guitar behind his head and plays it backwards. What’s also striking is how hard the band are working, they’re all covered in sweat – it’s a very Essex characteristic to put in a proper shift in your night-job. Somehow the sea walls hold as Wilko encores with Johnny Be Goode.

It’s a special moment to have seen Wilko in his home town where he’s still very much loved. Like Canvey he’s in a place apart, a geezer metaphorically a few feet short of sea level, but strangely addictive and still loved by the locals.

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