Fate is a curious thing. Too young to catch Muddy Waters, I was however lucky enough to catch BB King onstage. I missed out on Hendrix, but then many a young guitar star would envy my seeing Rory Gallagher in his prime. With regard to today’s music, I was slightly too young to catch Dr Feelgood with Wilko Johnson but I did catch them one memorable evening at Portsmouth Polytechnic with Lee Brilleaux. Swings and Roundabouts as they say. But where in this musical ‘fairground’ do the present Dr Feelgood stand in all this? I would have said, as many indeed have, that a Feelgood without Wilko and Lee isn’t Feelgood – yet I still look forward to the gigs and have never been disappointed by the show.
A great part of it has to be the songs themselves. You can go to a rock concert every day of the year for the next ten years and you won’t find a live set that gets into your body, your mind, your soul quite the way these short but sweet gems do. The cream of them are Wilko penned, but ‘Down at the Doctors’ is amongst the exceptions and a Feelgood classic too. They’ve made their own some older classics too – like Hooker’s ‘Madman Blues’ and Ritchie Valen’s ‘Bony Maronie’. Like their celebrated smiling logo, the band Dr Feelgood has always, and will always I’m sure, represent quality RnB of the kind they seemingly don’t write anymore – and maybe that’s because you can’t improve on the perfection of those pub closing time vibes.
Stageside before the show I have a half hour to observe my fellow concert goers. Most my age or older. No one I can see is under 40 and most well over. Despite the upstairs balcony being closed, a number have headed up there so they can sit down. I’m betting that many of the people here tonight would have seen the band 30 years ago and never dreamed of being anywhere else but stage-side with a pint of beer and swaying hips to the beat. What would Lee Brilleaux have made of it all? with that edgy Canvey Island style of his that always looked barely one wrong stare away from a punch-up.
The Big Figure has now vacated the drum stool (Tinnitus rather than a need to slow down/spend more time at home I’m told) but don’t go assuming this is some mere cover-band. I have a Feelgood live CD from 1984 with ‘new’ sticksman Kevin Morris on it (Lee Brilleaux on vocals still) and Robert Kane who joined in 1999 played his 1000th gig with the band a whole decade ago. Guitarist Steve Walwyn joined more than 25 years ago and Phil Morris, having replaced original bassman John B Sparkes, has subsequently been pounding out the intro to Roxette with only a short break in the 80’s ever since. The reality is that this is the most stable incarnation of the band ever.
It doesn’t take two minutes of listening to realize that these guys know every note that not only they play but that every other band member will play. They know they’re good, they know the songs are good, and they know the audience will get the good time they want. Most of all they know that live music is a SHOW. How many bands have I seen that think live music is all about recreating the album onstage? WRONG! If we want the album we can stay home, play it, and save on the concert ticket. We want drama, baby!
Robert Kane is a damn fine frontman. He gives both the audience and the songs 100% attention. It would be easy to just let the great tunes do all the work. I mean, when you’ve got ‘Back in the Night’, ‘Roxette’ and ‘She Does it Right’ working for you who needs to put in the extra effort? But Kane does. He’s also an excellent Bluesharp player, and surprised even me with a fine set of Whisky soaked Blues tonsils on ‘Shotgun Blues’, a number on which Steve Walwyn also reminded me he is a top-notch guitarist in the ‘old’ tradition of playing searing, melodic guitar solos the sort of which I found wanting during my visit to the Harmonie over the last weekend. It was topped, and only just, by Walwyn’s even more Herculean performance on ‘Rolled & Tumbled’ There are a lot of ‘Top’ Rock groups out there who should get to a Dr Feelgood concert and see what playing live really is all about.
Feelgood shows are invariably like a day at the dog track. A short wait, frantic action, and a quick break to catch your breath before ‘the hare is on the loose’ or in Feelgood parlance – the next high energy riff hits your hips, causing an unavoidable movement of legs and head in rhythmic unison to the bass drum. When Kane announces with an apologetic wave of his hands “We’re almost at the end of the set-list now” an eager voice from the front retorts “F*ck the set-list”. Fortunately, although this isn’t physically or chronologically possible, there is still time for some great music. No Feelgood show now would seem right without ‘Down at the Doctors’ of course, or some classic RnB from the archives: “Here’s some John Lee Hooker for you” smiles Steve Walwyn, before launching into a beautifully rough-hewn solo intro to ‘Mad Man Blues’. More emotion in one song than I hear in an entire concert by other, trendier, ‘in’ bands these days.
I always find the Caribbean air of ‘Bony Maronie’ a little sad because it announces at once the start of a great tune and the end of a great concert by one of the best live RnB bands that there ever was or will be. How do they still do it after all these years? “You don’t know?” smiles Phil Morris after the gig before adding “I’ve got no idea myself!”. Maybe there’s an inkling of an answer later in the conversation when I ask if he’s seen Wilko lately. “Oh sure. Only last week we went to see the Stranglers” he laughed. It’s all about not letting go of that love for musical energy. About enjoying the pulsing beat. Of being a part of something that’s bigger than all of us – Music. I rather think Lee Brilleaux would approve of the band still going strong – so long as they play like they mean it – and these guys don’t know any other way.