Times Tested: A little known blues great

7 mins read

Rory Gallagher died in 1995 at the relatively young age of 47. It was a great loss to the world of blues – Gallagher was one of that rare breed of European guitarists who really had a feel for the original Delta blues.

He was acknowledged by his peers as one of the outstanding players of his generation indeed, on his death, Eric Clapton said that his own return to the blues music was inspired by Gallagher. He certainly sold plenty of albums either as a solo artist or as a member of the band Taste, but that success and the acclaim of critics and musicians did not translate into the level of stardom that his playing, singing and good looks should have brought. I’d long wondered why that was but I think I found the answer recently when I purchased a DVD of a movie that was made at the time he was recording material for his 1974 live album Irish Tour.

I’ve owned the album since its release and, of course, I’d formed my own mental images about what was happening as Gallagher and his band were playing. The reality was very different. I had thought that he was playing to packed stadiums with tens of thousands of people (not sure where I thought those might be in 1970s Ireland). Instead, he was playing town halls no bigger than our own Nordica Auditorium with, at most, two or three hundred fervent fans. There were no limos or fawning flunkies or any other trappings of stardom, just some very seedy cold-water dressing rooms and sweaty T-shirts.

There was no fancy electronic equipment just amps and lots of wires. This was how it used to be – hard work, the thrill of playing well and small rewards. Rory and his band members looked so incredibly young and yet he was such a blazing talent. How could he possibly have learned to play that well? Back to hard work, I guess. I was surprised too by how good his band was. Listening to the album over the years, I’d focused on Gallagher’s guitar playing and not paid proper attention to the quality of support that he was getting from his bassist, keyboard player and drummer. All of them, including Gallagher, had come out of the competitive cauldron of Irish show bands. The most lasting impression, though, from the movie was just how introverted, shy even, he was. He was a very ordinary young man with an extraordinary skill.

The album Irish Tour is breathtaking right from the very first moments. As he is introduced to the audience he tunes his guitar and then breaks unhesitatingly into a powerful unaccompanied solo. This man is taking charge. He moves up and down the fretboard with consummate ease and fires up the audience with his daring and the emotional vitality of his music. And it is his music; many of the tracks he plays on this album he wrote and it’s as though he channeled the legendary American bluesmen of yore.

Don’t look for any philosophical or amatory insight in the lyrics. That’s not the point, this man is trying – and succeeding – to peel the paint off his guitar (look at the album cover to see what I mean). In the solo guitar break on the opening track, Cradle Rock, he uses a slide to phenomenal effect yet still picking out individual notes as he improvises. He follows up with a Muddy Waters number, I Wonder Who, and marvelous as Mr. Waters was, he didn’t have the guitar chops that Mr. Gallagher possessed – although he definitely outclassed the young Irishman’s vocals. This is seven minutes of blues bliss with hints of something even better to come.

The third track, Tattoo’d Lady, is a staple of Gallagher’s performances and is a straightforward rocker with blistering guitar work. This is followed by J.B. Hutto’s Too Much Alcohol, a crowd-pleaser with its build up to the “100% alcohol” being needed to drown the blues. This is followed in turn by Tony Joe White’s As The Crow Flies in which Gallagher shows his mastery of the acoustic slide guitar.

Then we get to what I consider to be the two best tracks on this album and, arguably, of his career. In the first one, A Million Miles Away, Gallagher provides some pretty good lyrics and some astonishing guitar playing – he manages to coax a panoply of unusual and exciting sounds from his modified stratocaster which take the audience on an roller-coaster ride as he explores the low end of the guitar’s range and takes us all the way to the top and then, literally, drops us down to the bottom again in one swoop. It takes your breath away. The next track, Walk On Hot Coals, is blues par excellence. It runs for over 11 minutes during which Gallagher creates, innovates and shows the kind of versatility with styles of playing that put him in a class by himself.

If you can recover from those tracks, there are two more to follow that give further proof of Rory Gallagher’s virtuosity. And if you like this album, you’ll also enjoy others – in particular, I’d recommend Rory Gallagher and Jinx. This man and his work should no longer be overshadowed by his better-known contemporaries, he should be right up there on the pedestal with the other blues greats.

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