- 02 Mar 18
Rory Gallagher was the real deal, a hard-rockin’ blues devotee whose live act, at its heady peak, was among the very best in the world. In this piece from 2001, to mark the release of the Let's Go To work box-set,Jackie Hayden pays tribute...
There’s only one essential answer to the question, “Can the white men play the blues?” It’s Rory Gallagher – guitarist, singer, songwriter, occasional sax and harmonica player and Ireland’s outstanding gift to the world of the blues.
Rory was born in Ballyshannon in Co Donegal in 1948, but he grew up in Cork and was proudly claimed by that city as one of its own. After a spell on the showband circuit, he first burst on the rock scene in the mid-sixties with the power-trio Taste, whose blistering debut album is still a classic of its kind.
But it was with the formation of the Rory Gallagher Band in 1971 that he really came fully into his own as a dynamic blues guitarist and a raw, uncompromising vocalist, capable of magically transforming his every performance into a ritualistic release of primal energy. Rory concocted a heady cocktail of rock, folk and blues that drew accolades from such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Micheal O Suilleabhain, Roger Glover and Van Morrison. He could wring tears of joy and sadness with his individualistic bottleneck playing and his enthusiastic assimilation of early influences, that ranged from Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lonnie Donegan to Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry.
In 1972 he was voted the world’s number one guitarist by British rock bible Melody Maker and over the next decade, ten of the band’s albums charted in the UK, with Live In Europe reaching the top ten and staying in the charts for 15 weeks. On regular visits home, he regularly packed out venues across the country, despite the domination of the showband scene, the absence of an indigenous rock press and virtually no regular radio play from Radio Éireann as was.
While stoically eschewing the superficialities of showbiz and steering well clear of contrived marketing antics, he toured America 30 times, was feted from Galway to Greece and recorded and played live with an impressive list of mentors and cohortsd, including Jerry Lee Lewis and Albert King. He also found time to make notable contributions to albums by Irish artists of the calibre of Davy Spillane, The Fureys and The Dubliners.
With an approach that was characteristically unpretentious, his devotion to the blues always retained the purity of the form but without lapsing into over-reverence. In the end, he racked up over 15 albums, including such gems as Deuce (1971), Against The Grain (1975), Calling Card (1976), Defender (1997) and Fresh Evidence (1990). But some will argue, not without justification, that his best work was done on stage, captured magnificently on the Live In Europe album (1972) and Irish Tour ’74.
Clad in his trademark check shirt and denims, he took his battered Stratocaster all over the world, wowing audiences with his sweat-stained live performances and establishing a parallel reputation for gritty studio albums that never delivered less than his total commitment.
Equally at home on acoustic guitar, Gallagher inspired a shed load of guitar-players, including The Edge, Johnny Marr, Slash and Joe Bonamassa and even came close to replacing Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones in the mid-’70s.
Following Rory’s untimely death from complications after a liver transplant in 1995, we were left with our memories – and speculation as to what might have been. Rory Gallagher was a quiet, genuinely modest man who still had so much to offer when he played his final lick. Our only consolation may be the superb management of his extraordinary legacy by his brother Donal.
During a performance of ‘Out On The Western Plain’ at a gig in Cork, a fan wandered on-stage mid-set, put his hand on Rory’s shoulder, whispered in his ear and walked casually off. In the world of paranoid superstar security, the trespasser would have been bundled unceremoniously off-stage and out the door with a few boots n the arse to help him on his way. But Rory didn’t miss a lick, remained totally unconcerned and gently smiled as if it was the most natural thing ever. It’s all captured on the video Live In Cork.
Most memorable saying
Rory often started gigs with a no-nonsense, “Let’s Go To Work”, hence the title of the 2001 box set.
View from the sidelines
While to many outsiders Rory was a man seriously dedicated to his muse, he had a humorous, playful side too. Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover worked with Rory on the production of the Calling Card album in 1976. His most abiding memory of that time occurred late one evening in the studio. “Rory was doing a very convincing impression of a preacher making a sermon and urging the audience to repent of their sins and come to the Lord. This went on well into the night, aided and abetted by drink and laughter. That’s what made Rory a great stage performer, his ability to entertain whatever the occasion.”
What’s happening now (2001)
The four-CD box set Let’s Go To Work is a live collection from Capo/RCA that includes undated versions of Live In Europe, Irish Tour ’74 and what was formerly known as the “G Man” bootleg album, to create the most comprehensive anthology of Rory Gallagher at work live on stage. Key tracks include ‘Walk On Hot Coals’, ‘Cradle Rock’ and ‘Tattood Lady’.
Rory’s entire catalogue is being lovingly curated by his brother Donal, so we can expect more high-quality re-releases and un-issued gems from the vaults for some time to come.
Five key tracks
‘Blister On The Moon’ with Taste (1969)
The opening track on the band’s debut album comes roaring out of your speakers with the kind of venom and intensity that's usually more associated with the Sex Pistols of a decade later.
‘What’s Goin’ On’ from On The Boards by Taste (1970)
Gallagher often opened his live gigs with this favourite, immediately establishing that magical rapport with his worshipful audience, which turned every gig into a celebration of life, love and the blues.
‘I Could Have Had Religion’ from Live! In Europe (1972)
A tasty slice of mean and dirty Chicago electric blues that earned plaudits from Bob Dylan et al. Note especially the extraordinary interplay between the harmonica and the guitar and then marvel that both are being played (live!) by RG himself.
‘Out On The Western Plain’ from Against The Grain (1975)
Gallagher takes this authentic Leadbelly song about rural America and makes it his own, painting a universal picture of empty landscapes, a relentless sun, lonesome cowboys, campfires and rolling plains.
‘Off The Handle’ from Live In Cork video (1987)
It lasts for nigh on ten minutes and includes some spectacular playing from Gallagher and regular harmonica guest Mark Feltham, on a slow, sinewy, sexy blues workout.
The key album
live! in europe
In the wake of the acrimonious break-up of Taste, Rory Gallagher quickly regrouped with a new line-up featuring himself, Wilgar Campbell on drums and bassist Gerry McEvoy. In 1972 that combo delivered the album Live! In Europe and brought us Rory in truly electrifying form, squeezing new depths of emotion from every fret on his sweat-soaked trade-mark Stratocaster to such an extent that it sparked off comparisons with Clapton and Hendrix. For those who were never blessed to see the man in the flesh, this album captures him in full glorious flight.