When Dr Feelgood’s eponymous live ‚Stupidity’ album topped the British charts Canadian Jimmy Bowskill was fourteen years away from even being born. Isn’t it just possible that the young Canadian tiger could steal the thunder from Canvey Islands old lions? I went down to the Harmonie on Sunday prepared to see a showdown and to hear the guitars roar.
Perhaps it’s a result of their bleak Industrial roots in Canvey Island, but Dr Feelgood are seasoned survivors. You only need look at the Band history to see it. When songwriter Wilko Johnson left at the height of their success, they merely dusted themselves off, enlisted the help of Nick Lowe, and promptly scored their biggest singles chart success of all with ‘Milk & Alcohol’. If Jimmy Bowskill’s sizzling set had raised concerns about stealing their thunder then, Phil Mitchell, Feelgood bassist since 1983, didn’t show it as he slipped quietly onto the Harmonie stage whilst much of the audience was still crowding the bar.
It took only the first thunderous volley of ‘I Can Tell’ to get the punters scurrying back to the stage. With numbers like ‘She Got it Right’, ‘Baby Jane’ and ‘Roxette’ following in short but explosive succession you won’t be surprised to hear that the front of stage was a heaving mass of bobbing heads from then on.
If you know the band’s history then you’ll know most of the band’s hits were penned by a certain Wilko Johnson and he’s been absent from the ranks since a disagreement over a song title in 1976; so how is it the fans still wear that laughing Doctor’s face logo on woolly hats and T shirts with pride? Two reasons that come to mind: One is that these are amongst the best, most commercial R&B songs ever created, with witty lyrics and irresistible (for tapping feet) riffs. The other reason is Robert Kane.
When you lose a legend you don’t get a replacement easily. Lee Brilleaux’s death in 1994 left the band without a charismatic singer. But Dr Feelgood once again proved able to survive, and indeed since the addition of Robert Kane in 1999 have visual pyrotechnics to match the musical ones delivered especially by the hammer hard chording of guitarman Steve Walwyn. Kane mixes into one the bug eyed staring vitality of Wilko with the Blues-harp virtuosity of Brilleaux. He not so much performs on, as ‘possesses’, the stage, indeed it’s easy to be so taken by his visual presence that you overlook his excellent vocal talents – not to mention that, in a fortnight that’s seen top harpists Mark Feltham and Paul Jones ‘blowing’ on this very stage he stands up well to the comparisons with either man.
Okay, well. Maybe there are three reasons the band still draws crowds after 30+ years: Steve ‘Whirlwind’ Walwyn on lead guitar. His arms have the muscle mass of a drummer and that’s not surprising given he’s been hammering out the notes and riffs back to the Lee Brilleax days. Walwyn only knows one way to play – all out attack! If the energy behind his solo on ‘If My Baby Quits Me’ belied Walwyn’s age then the energy during his virtuoso performance of ‘Down by the Jetty Blues’ beggared belief. I had to ask afterwards if just ‘maybe’ Jimmy Bowskill’s earlier mindblowing rendition of ‘Summertime’ had spurred him on? His reply: “Na, I always play like that. It’s the only way I know!” It’s a way that inspired a French guitar making fan to present him with a rare metal/wood electric model that was used to good effect on Muddy’s ‘Rolling and Tumbling’. Did I mention that John ‘Big Figure’ Martin was on drums? He’s not listed as officialsticksman on their website but, as an original band member it’s always a pleasure to see him giving it some stick. Research tells me he stepped in as replacement on the bands first foreign tour and has stayed off and on ever since. Maybe still on a ‘probationary’ period? I think you get the job, John!
If you’ve seen the band over the last 30 years you will know the set-list. It hasn’t changed much since I saw them in the 1980’s at Portsmouth Polytechnic. ‘Back in the Night’, Down at the Doctors’, Going Back Home’. Encores of ‘Cell Block No 9’ and ‘Boney Maroney’. Part of me says the band here last week ‘Nine Below Zero’ have just released a CD with new material so why not the Feelgood’s? The other part though says, what would be the point? Those 70’s Feelgood classics capture British ‘Pub Rock’at it’s finest. Nobody comes close to recreating what Dr Feelgood played in 1975 – except Dr Feelgood in 2012: