The audience are still taking their seats during the Wilko Johnson Band‘s support set, but the trio treat us to a solid 45 minutes of tightly-coiled, high-energy rhythm & blues. Despite his well-documented battle with cancer Johnson’s distinctive guitar chops are fully intact, his right arm pumping like a piston on his simultaneous lead and rhythm playing while he frequently lurches off across the stage like a pinball from a bumper on the instrumental breaks. Just as impressive are bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe – both sometime Blockheads – with Watt-Roy hustling vigorously around Howe’s crisp jazz beats, dexterously launching clusters of low notes into the spaces to uncover new layers of complexity in these deceptively simple tunes. There’s no space tonight for Johnson’s signature number ‘Roxette’ unfortunately, but the band do close with two other Dr Feelgood classics, ‘Back in the Night’ and ‘She Does It Right’.
Status Quo open as usual with ‘Caroline’, that itching two-stroke riff as unmistakable as a vintage car engine getting into gear before heading full-throttle down an open road. American rock may find its metaphors in hogs and Harleys, but with Quo you’re cruising in a classic old Bentley or Jag; all of the horsepower but a more comfortable softer ride. Indeed, while their influences are overtly American – rock n’ roll, blues, country – Quo fit them all to a uniquely British rhythm. You could conceivably Morris dance to any one of their songs, not just ‘Burning Bridges’, their 1988 single based on the Anglo-Irish Napoleonic ballad ‘Darby Kelly’, which tonight sends band and audience alike into dangerous spurts of middle-aged pogoing.
‘Rain’, from 1976’s Blue for You, is moody and atmospheric, and it’s great to hear 1970 single ‘Down the Dustpipe’, albeit in a medley that also includes ‘What You’re Proposing’, ‘Again and Again’, the country waltz ‘Wild Side of Life’, and 1971 album cut ‘Railroad’. It’s fair to say however that the band’s set list hasn’t changed much in the last decade or so, with blond-maned Rick Parfitt generally singing the bluesy rockers, while the somewhat thinning-on-top Francis Rossi (“I’m glad to see so many of the men here have adopted my hairstyle”) handles the country-tinged powerpop numbers and witty repartee. A welcome surprise is the inclusion of ‘Gerdundula’, also from 1970 and here played with drummer Leon Cave out front on minimal percussion, foregrounding the haunting, cyclical riff that effectively takes us back to Quo’s quasi-psychedelic roots.
Alas, we don’t stay long in such misty territory, though 1986’s ‘In the Army Now’ isn’t as gung-ho as you might remember, its lyrics decidedly ambivalent about military life. After a superfluous drum solo we’re into the home stretch with the mighty ‘Roll Over lay Down’ and of course ‘Down Down’, its gonzo repetition worthy of the Ramones, or Can, or the best minimal techno – it’s easy to see why the track remained one of John Peel’s favourites, and why it went down so well when the great DJ dropped it into his set at 1995 dance music festival Tribal Gathering.
‘Whatever You Want’ and ‘Rocking All Over The World’ are crowd-pleasing set closers, before an old school encore of ‘Paper Plane’, ‘Junior’s Wailing’ and an extended medley of Chuck Berry’s ‘Rock n’ Roll Music’ and ‘Bye Bye Johnny’. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn: Status Quo remain legends of rock to the end.