It must be said that sometimes, the reports one hears about certain artists can deter a writer from going to see them. And, despite my having worshipped him since infancy, Roy Wood had latterly become such an artist, with disheartening stories aplenty circulating around gig-going fraternities of a certain age.
Some of the comments I’d heard in recent years were, to be honest, downright insulting to such an exemplary and unique musician: “don’t bother”, said at least two people of my slender acquaintance on separate occasions, “he comes onstage looking like he can’t be arsed, plays for less than an hour, and worst of all, doesn’t even do that many Move songs. It’s all cheesy rock and roll revival cobblers…”
Still, with my fandom resolutely undeterred (some journalists will tell you it’s unprofessional to admit to being a ‘fan’ of anything, but you’ll not hear any such pretentious bleatings from me) I pressed ahead, determined that at some point in the near future, I was going to witness the Brummie legend live and in the flesh. And, after all, why wouldn’t I? I’d already seen the current Move lineup and Jeff Lynne’s ELO, so it’s only natural that I should wish to complete the jigsaw.
And, fuck my silver platform heels, I’m glad I did – because, you see, all of those doubters and dissenters were completely wrong. Sure, it’s perfectly possible for any great artists to deliver a less-than-scintillating performance (Dylan does it almost nightly these days, and still gets paid about £100,00 a throw for the privilege) and who knows, maybe the bearded genius had been a bit lacklustre on a couple of occasions: however, the operative point, and moreover, the key to which I should have been paying more attention, was that all the people who claimed not to have enjoyed his recent shows were based in the South. So if the great man did drop the ball (or should that be ‘lose his woody’?) in either of those instances, maybe it’s because he simply doesn’t like playing for sterile Home Counties audiences. And trust me, as someone who comes from those sterile Home Counties, I know only too well whereof I speak…
Up here, though, in his West Midlands, in a venue that to all intents and purposes is his venue (the front bar is even named after him, its walls festooned with giant images of his glittering physiog) there is no chance whatsoever of that ever happening – and thus, our hero delivers accordingly. And then some. Granted, he may look a lot more conventional than in days of yore, when his multi-coloured mane, painted visage and shaggy demeanour clearly inspired the look of Animal Kwackers’ terrifying frontman Roary The Lion, and he does admittedly permit his female backing vocalist to shoulder the higher notes wherever necessary (in particular on Ball Park Incident and Fire Brigade) but this was still a buoyant performance from a man who, at 71, is every inch as passionate about his music- and about rock n roll in general- as he ever was.
With a ten-piece ensemble featuring twin vocals, two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums and a four-strong horn section, the sound is reminiscent of – though not identical to – classic Wizzard at their peak: it’s also more than capable of stripping back and lightening up for the the floatier, popsike-flavoured intonations of Flowers In The Rain and Blackberry Way, although the gentle, elegiac leanings of the latter are perhaps slightly harder to determine when drowned by the rumbustious bellowings (my own included) of the Robin’s 700-strong vocal chorus. Then again, why shouldn’t they be? As the show progresses, Wood’s own singing (initially a touch hesitant on opener California Man) grows in both stature and confidence: by the time of Angel Fingers, he’s letting forth in almost the precise same achingly emotional timbre that took the song to No 1 all those decades ago, and for those brief four minutes, it’s almost as if time has stood entirely still.
Needless to say, there isn’t room in an 80-minute set to satisfy everybody, especially at Christmas, and so there’s no chance of several other equally classic tunes, such as Night Of Fear, Curly, Buffalo Station, Forever, Going Down The Road or Brontosaurus (although he does tease us with its intro) getting aired: on the flipside, there are those who might equally venture that a few of tonight’s other selections – Kiss Me Goodnight Boadicea, Big Girls Blues, New York City – could have been left out to allow some of those in, and what’s more, they’d probably have a point. Yet nonetheless, there isn’t one single moment of Wood’s performance- from his neat line in self-deprecating, foul-mouthed inter-song banter to the almost jaw-droppingly perfect delivery of Roy’s Revenge (bagpipes intact) See My Baby Jive and ‘that’ Xmas song – no, not Rock N Roll Winter, the ‘other’ one – that doesn’t blow my ears off.
In the simplest terms possible, he’s astounding: in a just and sane world, they should be canonising him for his services to everything from psychedelia to glam rock to proto-metal, all of which (like practically everything interesting to come out of this country between the Beatles and punk) started here in the Midlands region. And, therefore, where better to witness him? With hindsight, I think I did the right thing by waiting until I’d relocated to this neck of the woods to do so. Any metaphors about how he ‘owned’ the stage tonight are redundant here, as from what I hear, he practically does anyway.
The only letdown was that, as is so often the way, it all had to end so suddenly: moreover, he probably won’t be back til next Christmas, although whether he’ll take on board my suggestion that he start including the full ten-minute ‘Rock Medley’ from Boulders – Rockin Shoes, She’s Too Good For Me, Locomotive – in all future set lists (or if that particular ambition will remain permanently unfulfilled) remains to be seen. Yet, much like the cockle-warming routines of deliciously un-PC, local opening comedian Jonny Cole (you definitely wouldn’t get that in hipster Londinium, I can assure you) or the head-shredding riffage of simply delicious all-female support act JoanOvArc, it’s also enough to at least ensure my annual (and yes, I did say annual, entendre pervs) return. While there may be redevelopment aplenty across most of Staffordshire, this is definitely still one Wood that’s lost none of its enchantment.