It’s typical. You wait ages for a critically acclaimed former punk trailblazer to play Belfast, then two come along at once. Whoever has put Wilko Johnson up against Paul Weller needs their head looking at. Despite making waves again as the subject of the Julien Temple documentary film Oil City Confidential, the ex-Dr Feelgood guitar hero doesn’t stand a chance.
With everyone tapping their loafers along to Weller’s middle-of-the-road dad-rock at the Belsonic festival in Custom House Square, Johnson has to content himself with a sparsely attended Oh Yeah Music Centre, where he is opening this year’s Belfast City Blues Festival.
Thanks to his work with the Feelgoods, Wilko Johnson – embarrassingly misspelled ‘Wilco Johnston’ on the festival’s website – is a major name in punk lore, and it’s a thrill to see Weller recognise this with a guest spot for the man at the Custom House Square gig, during the appropriately jerky ‘From the Floorboards Up’.
It’s one of 'the Modfather’s' only concessions to his punk past, though. The one-time Jam leader doesn’t rock too hard for fear of scuffing the expensive shoes he’s no doubt wearing. (It’s hard to see from what feels like half a mile away, and there’s no way I’m going up front with a thousand lairy mods.)
Instead, Weller acts the 'artist' – keyboards here, acoustic guitars there. The surly singer wheels out a series of interminable space-rock epics, the likes of which would have had him lynched if he’d attempted them in ’79. A smattering of Jam numbers are performed begrudgingly (he even has his keyboard-player sing ‘Start!’), but for the most part it’s ‘The Changingman’, ‘You Do Something to Me’ and so on.
That he refuses to play classics such as ‘In the City’, ‘News of the World’ or ‘Going Underground’ – or indeed to give the people what they really want and reunite with Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler – is a shame bordering on a disgrace.
After Weller finally trundles offstage, the smart punters head round to the Oh Yeah, where Wilko, Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe are a few songs into their set. Visually, they resemble three ageing crazies who have decided to start a band. Drummer Howe – the son of Yes genius Steve – dispatches the shuffle beats, grinning like a madman who’s just soiled himself.
Blockheads bass legend Watt-Roy, all rotting teeth and straggly hair, is hunched over his instrument, doing unspeakable things to the strings. Wilko machine-guns the audience with a battered, black Telecaster, charging from side to side of the cramped stage, flashing the lunatic stare that Johnny Rotten pinched and made his own.
The place is near deserted, but a gentleman who appears to be Johnson’s number-one fan careers around the dancefloor in a rain mac, imitating the guitarist’s moves and bouncing along to the likes of ‘Paradise’, ‘Woolly Bully’ and ‘Don’t Let Your Daddy Know’.
The trio wrap up the all-too-brief show with Dr Feelgood anthems ‘Back in the Night’ and ‘She Does It Right’, before returning for an extended take on Chuck Berry’s ‘Bye Bye Johnny’. The storming, 10-minute jam showcases all of Johnson’s talent, integrity and raw charisma. Weller may have pulled the crowd, but Wilko brought the magic.