WILKO JOHNSON: ‘I Keep It To Myself – The Very Best Of’ (Chess/Universal)

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The first thing that strikes you about the music on this retrospective is the attitude: it’s loud, aggressive and pugnacious, bristling with a fierce, rambunctious energy that is encapsulated in Wilko Johnson’s astringent, scything, and sometimes brutal, but always arresting, guitar work. No wonder some commentators see the 69-year-old, cancer-surviving fretboardist  and National Treasure as the missing link between rhythm and blues and punk rock. It was that very same energy that infused the music of legendary Canvey Island R&B band Dr. Feelgood in the mid-’70s. Wilko, of course, was a founder member of that illustrious and highly influential quartet, and though he quit the band exactly forty years ago, their repertoire  – which, as their principal songwriter, he helped to create – remains an important component of who and what he is.

Indeed, you will find some sterling revisits of classic Feelgood numbers on this superlative 25-track/2-CD anthology of Wilko’s solo years, including such enduring classics as ‘Roxette,’ ‘Sneaking Suspicion,’ ‘She Does It Right,’ ‘Back In The Night,’ and ‘Down By The Waterside.’ Wilko brought  a similar attitude to his own work, as evidenced by the pulsating road songs, ‘Out In The Traffic,’ which is a cranked-up slice of driving rhythm and blues propelled by heavy riffage, and ‘Ice On The Motorway.’ Aided by long-time confreres, bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe, Wilko serves up a piquant platter of raw, visceral and earthy rhythm and blues. ‘The Hook’ – complete with blues-drenched harmonica wails – is another standout, along with ‘Barbed Wire Blues’ – delivered with deadpan sardonic wit – and a frenetic, adrenalin-pumping retooling of Dr. Feelgood’s ‘Paradise.’

It’s not all full-throttle R&B, though, as the more reflective ‘The Beautiful Madrilena,’ – which is infused with an Hispanic tinge – ‘Living In The Heart Of Love,’ and poignant, almost pastoral, ‘Turned 21,’ illustrate. But searing, turbo-charged rhythm and blues is Wilko Johnson’s calling card and on that score, this stupendous collection doesn’t disappoint. Turn the volume up all the way to eleven.

(CW) 4/5

Past Wilko Johnson reviews: