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Wilko Johnson on-stage fright at Cambridge Junction


By Mike Scialom


The Wilko Johnson Band performing at The Junction, April 25 2019 with, from left, Wilko Johnson, Dylan Howe and Norman Watt-Roy before the guitarist's mishap. Picture: Mike Scialom
The Wilko Johnson Band performing at The Junction, April 25 2019 with, from left, Wilko Johnson, Dylan Howe and Norman Watt-Roy before the guitarist's mishap. Picture: Mike Scialom

The Wilko Johnson Band played The Junction last night (April 25), and rock'n roll's never-ending capacity to surprise put an unexpected twist on proceedings. Wilko Johnson, the famed Dr Feelgood manic guitarist who plays the executioner knight Ser Ilyn Payne in Game of Thrones, completed a concert at The Junction last night despite a mid-set mishap which saw him leave the stage for 15 minutes to regroup following a tumble.

By turns life-affirming and poignant, the evening opened with a Glenn Tilbrook set on voice and electric guitar.

As one of the great English songwriters with Squeeze (Jools Holland was the piano player for a while) it became obvious, when the natural melodic grace of the music and the lyrical stories took hold, that Glenn Tilbrook is long overdue a reappraisal of the 'national treasure' variety but, without a band, the lyrics and even the melodies were in danger of being drowned out as the audience checked.

Wilko Johnson is of course no stranger to this town. It would hardly have been on his radar as a Canvey Island native whose first band, Dr Feelgood, wooed the nation with some seminal rhythm'n'blues which produced the classic 'Milk and Alcohol' in 1978. But the musician hit the headlines in 2013 when he was diagnosed as suffering from terminal cancer. He then went on a round-the-world goodbye tour before being given an 11-hour operation at Addenbrooke's Hospital which completely removed the 3kg tumour - of which Wilko said: "How lucky can you get?" Having subsequently been given the all-clear, he has enjoyed a rousing return to the live arena recently, including a number one album with Roger Daltrey and playing a sold-out show at The Royal Albert Hall to mark his 70th birthday.

Playing as a trio with bassist Norman Watt-Roy - previously in Ian Dury's Blockheads - and drummer Dylan Howe, the band has a solid reputation for delivering no-nonsense R'n'B. Wilko's remains a unique stage presence: he has perfected the economic and intensely rhythmic chop-chord technique he first started out with, and stomps around the stage dressed all in black with a 'don't mess with me' scowl. Not for nothing has he proved hugely watchable as the chiller-killer executioner in Game of Thrones.

On this occasion, however, the plot took a worrying turn. The concert got under way without mishap, though Johnson said that he had to "keep up the blood-sugar levels" when he drank from a bottle of water between songs. Mid-way through the set he walked to the side of the stage, said something to a roadie, then appeared to lose his balance before landing uncomfortably off-stage. The full house of 800 people went quiet as he was escorted backstage. Many suspected the concert was over but, without announcement, Johnson returned ten minutes later with his band - bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe - launched into another bulldozing rhythm'n'blues song, and played out the set with no further incident.

Bassist Norman Watt-Roy played with maximum intensity at The Junction Picture: Mike Scialom
Bassist Norman Watt-Roy played with maximum intensity at The Junction Picture: Mike Scialom

Later in the performance, in a rare between-songs comment, he spoke about the incident.

"Sorry about earlier," he told the audience. "I don't know what it is, terminal cancer maybe.... No, I've been falling over and crying more often recently... I don't know what that's all about."

"We'll catch you!" shouted a member of the crowd.

"Aw, that's a good idea," Johnson replied, before kicking into another track. The set ended with a rousing - and surprisingly tender - version of the Chuck Berry classic 'Johnny B Goode'.

Manager David ‘Lofty’ Lockhart said of the incident the following day (April 26): "Wilko's fine, he was just feeling a bit under the weather. He was glad to be back in Cambridge but disappointed for the people who had come to see him that it hadn't gone as well as he hoped.

"He just wants to play rock'n'roll, he loves to entertain people, he lives to play his music now, that's what's keeping him going."



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