Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey's "Going Back Home"

"Roger/Wilko" or "Dr./Who" -- the jokes are ready-made, but the teaming of the ex-Dr. Feelgood guitarist (who's become something of a folk hero in the UK since he bravely refused treatment and embarked on a tour in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis) and the 'orrible 'oo vocalist (who's done charitable work for the Teenage Cancer Trust, making a collaboration with a muso who's flipped the Big C the two-finger salute a natural) is hardly a laughing matter.

Back in the early '70s, as prog and glam were taking over and punk was still a couple of years away, the Feelgoods, who hailed from the backwater of Canvey Island, kept the flag of British R&B flying, with Johnson looking like an escaped mental patient as he flailed away at his Telecaster with wild abandon and no picks. While the Who might not have been present at the creation of Brit R&B, they jumped on the bandwagon as soon as they could, with Daltrey ceding the lead guitar slot in the band he'd formed to the walking nose of an art student that the bassplayer brought in, so that he himself could channel Howlin' Wolf and James Brown. In the fullness of time, of course, said art student became the band's auteur, with Daltrey as the iconic, flowing-haired mouthpiece for his anthems. But you always got the feeling that the old brawler was lurking just under the surface, and Going Back Home gives him a chance to step forward and roar once more.

Recorded in a week last November and released in March on Chess Records (whatever that means nowadays), Going Back Home reprises Wilko compositions from the Feelgoods and his solo career, plus a Dylan cover ("Please Crawl Out Your Window"). Of course it's a throwback, but it's a mighty satisfying one. Like Daltrey's regular guitarist, Wilko's a groovemaker, not a showboat, so the band -- Norman Watt-Roy (bass), Dylan Howe (drums), Mick Talbot (keys) and Steve Weston (harp) -- carries a lot of the weight here. They lay down a solid, no-frills four-on-the-floor in the manner of, say, Rockpile.

When Wilko steps out, he makes pithy statements that show he drank from the same deep well as Townshend -- a little Berry here, a little Hooker there, a whole lot of Steve Cropper and especially Johnny Kidd & the Pirates' Mick Green. For all one hears about the effects of age on Daltrey's pipes, he sounds remarkably like the man who growled R&B-period Who numbers like "Bald-Headed Woman" and "Daddy Rolling Stone," half a century ago. Wilko's meat-and-potatoes songcraft is a good fit for that voice, and the resultant mix would sound really good in a sweaty pub. High spots include the change-of-pace slow one "Turned 21," the almost-funky "Keep On Loving You," the Feelgoods' flag-waver "Sneaking Suspicion," and "Everybody's Carrying a Gun," the lyrics to which seem more applicable to 'Meercuh than the UK. Long live Wilko, and good on Roger for undertaking this project.


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