Take one Dr Feelgood and one reformed Wholigan. Add one Blockhead and a former Style Councillor. Throw in a journeyman drummer and a blues harp ace and you have all the ingredients for a rock’n’roll’n’blues’n’soul blow-out. It’s not so much ‘Memphis Soul Stew’ as Canvey Island meat’n’gruel, as Wilko Johnson leads the fray in a raucous, joyous run-through of a selection of past glories.
Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer at the beginning of last year and opted out of chemotherapy; instead he embarked on a series of shows, showing no sign that his illness has slowed his irrepressible demeanour. Johnson’s distinctive guitar style and glaring, striding stage presence, coupled with Dr Feelgood frontman Lee Brilleaux’s refined don’t-fuck-with-us air, marked the band out as an influential and much-respected outfit during Johnson’s four-album tenure.
Johnson never achieved the solo success of Dr Feelgood after his departure under acrimonious circumstances in ’77, but his output remained steady until the late ‘80s. Going Back Home sees Johnson and Roger Daltrey going back to their roots. While Johnson’s guitar is as serrated as it ever was, the rough edges of Daltrey’s vocal have long been smoothed out over a fifty year musical career, but he goes at these songs with relish. The angry young man of those fledgling skiffle days and subsequent pre-Who practise grounds of The Detours and The High Numbers may have grown up and refined his voice, but Daltrey has always been a street-tough growler at heart.
Daltrey grunts, yelps and blusters his way through Johnson’s back catalogue with clear enjoyment, even if he careers dangerously close to pantomime at times. Admittedly, it’s actually quite jarring when he comes in on Dr Feelgood’s ‘All Through The City’, where the casual menace of Lee Brilleaux’s hard-edged tone is simply irreplaceable. More successful is the sextet’s take on Dylan’s ‘Can You Please Crawl Out your Window’, here sounding more like The E-Street Band than The Hawks.
It’s very much a band effort even if Johnson is the primary engine, with as much consideration given to Steve Weston’s harmonica or Mick Talbot’s organ as Johnson’s chopping guitar. The album, apparently, was recorded in a week and there is a sense of loose abandon with which the players run through the tracks. It’s not all rabble rousing though, and blues ballad ‘Turned 21’ has Daltrey lay on a vocal just the wrong side of Rod Stewart.
The sub-‘Shakin’ All Over’ riff of ‘Ice On The Motorway’ speaks most overtly of where Johnson and Daltrey have come from musically, with both men affirming the debt both The Who and Dr Feelgood, and a fair chunk of the British musical establishment, owe to Johnny Kidd & The Pirates. Going Back Home has a simple premise – two statesmen revering the R&B that ignited their journey, in the process delivering one of the most enjoyable records the year has thrown up so far.