To paraphrase his old mate Ian Dury, “There ain’t ‘alf been some funky bastards”. Oh yes, getting the chance to see legendary bassist Norman Watt-Roy (the funkster behind many of Ian Dury and the Blockheads’ hits) in relatively intimate surroundings is exciting enough, chuck in a guest appearance from wild eyed guitar genius from Dr Feelgood, Wilko Johnson, and this gig was pretty much unmissible.
Opener Jay Tamkin had a few technical issues this evening but that didn’t detract from the fact that he’s clearly a pretty darn impressive guitarist, singer and songwriter with (in his semi-acoustic guise at least...he’s also got his own funk band...as you do) just a hint of fellow Devonian Seth Lakeman on some of his folkier tracks.
Boy, I’d hate to be Norman Watt-Roy’s dry cleaner. Whilst some artists work up a bit of a sweat Watt-Roy puts so much into his performance he’d be drier after a deep sea dive. It’s worth it though. Half man, half bassist he’s possibly one of the funkiest muthas on the planet, on the move from the moment he hits the stage right through to the very end. As perhaps you’d expect the set itself includes a generous helping of Dury classics kicking off with a jazzier version of The Blockheads’ biggest tune, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Norm’s vocals aren’t too dissimilar to Ian’s dulcet cockney tones (he sings on a number of tracks this evening) but it’s the bass playing that most people are here to see/hear. He really does seem part bass, almost like he was born with the thing in his arms making him a wonderfully natural and instinctive player capable of laying down fluid grooves like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Introducing Billericay Dickie with “Here’s one of the first songs that made me love Ian in the first place” Norm and the band (all equally first class musicians) add a little Lionel Bart touch (to my ears at least) to another Dury classic. As rich in innuendo as anything he penned Norm clearly relishes every word. Of course he does...he ain’t an ‘effin thicky.
It’s not just chock-a-Blockheads with Ian’s stuff though. Tonight Norm and co are here to showcase tracks from their new album Faith & Grace too, revealing more of his jazzy side with some wonderful instrumentals and lounge funk on offer. He gets the crowd singing along too “I need some help with this one, it’s a difficult lyric” he jokes before launching into Norman!Norman! (its sole lyric is his name, repeated over and over again), cue some enthusiastic chants and finger pointing from the crowd. There’s a lot of love for him here tonight, justifiably so. Perhaps there’s even more though for his special guest and good mate, Wilko Johnson who comes on to play a few numbers.
Diagnosed with terminal cancer in early 2013 Wilko set off on a farewell tour in March. Whilst most people would react with horror at being given just months to live Wilko seemed genuinely okay with it all. In fact for the first time in his life he admitted that he actually started to appreciate being alive. Perhaps this change in attitude, coupled with a well deserved reappraisal of his legacy and some rapturously received live shows, is why he’s still up there on stage right now rather than pushing up the daisies.
Whatever the reason he seems in remarkably great shape, pacing the stage as wild eyed as ever and machine gunning the audience with his guitar to Everybody’s Carrying A Gun. The combination of Wilko’s choppy playing style and Norman’s smooth as funk bass is a pretty magical mix and when he left the stage after a stunning run through When I Was a Cowboy the thought that this may be one of their last shows together was pretty poignant. Let’s hope not though eh? I reckon the cancer’s a hell of lot more scared of Wilko than he is of it...
They’re reunited for an encore, it has to be Roxette (what else eh?). Wilko’s on testifyingly fine form again with Norman by his side laying down the grooves. Add some dirty sax blasts, funky drumming and cool keyboards and it’s an epic climax. After Wilko leaves the stage, just when you think it’s all over, Norman plugs in again for a bit of a Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick jam. After nearly half a century of playing in bands his enthusiasm is something else. Oh Watt-(Roy) a night!