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I first met singer/guitarist Johnny Dickinson back in 2003, when he walked into the Lonsdale pub on a cold February night with guitar in hand, to do a couple of songs in support of the main act. I don't remember who the main act was that night but I've always remembered Johnny's performance. His reputation as a fine singer and guitar player arrived sometime before he did, which was largely due to the enthusiasm and patronage of local music promoter Jonti Willis who had been badgering me to book the North East-based musician for some time. The proof of Jonti's pudding was in evidence that night from the moment he took to the stage. Making himself comfortable in a straight back chair with a single spotlight on him, he placed his guitar upon his knee and opened with Beach Road, one of his own songs, which also opened his debut album CASTLES AND OLD KINGS. Johnny was a perfectly fit man in those days, touring regularly both in the UK and Europe, as well as spending a lot of time in the United States, where much of his musical inspiration derives. His world came crashing down in 2011 when he underwent chemo treatment for a lymphoma, followed by a period of six months in hospital paralysed as a result of contracting Guillain Barre Syndrome, which took his illness to crisis point.
Since then, Johnny has played rarely, with barely a handful of dates marked on his calendar, just one at this venue in Doncaster and a couple of other charity gigs closer to home. With this in mind, it came as little surprise to see a well attended Roots Music Club tonight, with a room full of regular supporters, together with a gathering of noted musicians from the South Yorkshire music scene. Bob Chiswick was there to open proceedings with a handful of observational songs and stories from this neck of the woods including Silver Street a song about one of Doncaster's famous and at times infamous thoroughfares, together with an engaging song retelling the story of Claire Middleton, whose name has become synonymous with the Park Hill 'Streets in the Sky' housing estate in Sheffield. "You can buy one of those flats now for £5000" Bob quipped.
Support for tonight's show also included the Crocker Brothers from York, who endeavoured to transform the Ukrainian Centre stage into the Grand Ole Opry temporarily with some delightful country tunes such as Eastbound Freight Train, Fugitive's Lament and the tender self-penned Broken Boy. On a couple of occasions throughout the night the Crockers would join Johnny on stage performing together in a sort of 'for old times sake fashion', clearly enjoying every minute, on such as the old bluegrass classic Don't This Road Look Rough and Rocky.
The night really belonged to Johnny Dickinson though, whose relaxed and laid-back performance showed little evidence of the plight the musician has endured over the last few years. Cutting a rather slender figure these days, with closely cropped hair and a slightly greying beard, Johnny is an unassuming figure, so much so that at one point during the evening a search party went out looking for him to join the Crocker Brothers on stage, when he was standing at the bar all along.
Seated throughout his two sets, Johnny played exclusively electric guitar, although there were one or two hints to the effect that he might bring out a cowboy painted acoustic from backstage and a blonde electric which stood on its stand at the back of the stage throughout. He prepared photographers to watch out for these opportunities, which failed to materialise. I guess he just forgot. Either that or he was just enjoying the sound of his own guitar too much, as were we in the audience as he introduced a variety of styles such as Country, Country Blues, Celtic Folk, Rockabilly and a little Chas & Dave.
Despite having a set list beside him perched on a borrowed amp, Johnny played it loose and casual inviting the audience to shout out requests, which came almost immediately with a call for Crossing the Cumberland. Some suggestions were duly accepted, despite Johnny being fantastically under-rehearsed on such songs as Bad Moon Rising, which was helped along by audience prompts. No one cared, here was a musician who many consider a friend and everyone was clearly delighted to see their friend having fun up there on stage. Johnny was at his best though whilst delivering some of the most memorable songs from his repertoire such as Beach Road, Mercury Blues and Black Jack Davy, whose intro inadvertently morphed into Abba's Mamma Mia heaven forbid. Blind Boy Fuller's Weeping Willow and Doc Watson's Hestitation Blues were greeted with enthusiastic applause and the instrumental slide version of the traditional She Moved Through the Fair was rewarded with silence around the room.
All good things come to an end as surely they must and indeed with such great performances tonight, it made the task even more difficult for compere Jonti Willis to bring it to an end. Having pre-arranged lifts, one or two had reluctantly fled before the last couple of numbers, but despite this, no one could possibly say they left unfulfilled. It was a great night of music led by a performer who has been and continues to be sadly missed from the music scene and I'm sure everyone present, me included, would want to wish Johnny all the very best for the future. Jonti said it best from the stage.. "Johnny Dickinson.. I think you've been World Class".
Listen to an interview with Johnny before the show.