Rory Gallagher's "Irish Tour 1974"
In the last decade or so, the Irish blues-rock guitarist Rory Gallagher -- a great if underrated artist who came to prominence in the late '60s with the band Taste and headlined under his own name from '71 until his untimely death in '95 -- has been even more so, with the release of four and a half hours of footage from five different Montreaux Jazz Festivals, a mind-boggling ten hours from seven appearances on the great German Rockpalast TV show (source of a '79 Mitch Ryder performance that I wish somebody would release on DVD), and another 90 minutes from the German Beat Club show (shot with blue-screen backing so distracting images could be superimposed during broadcast) that accompany the Ghost Blues biopic DVD. While I don't think it's possible to overdose on goodness, that's a hell of a lot of TV watching (unless we're talking about Mad Men), so my Rory DVD of choice is Irish Tour 1974, a two-hour documentary directed by Tony Palmer (who also filmed Cream's farewell performance and Frank Zappa's 200 Motels), originally released theatrically and reished on DVD last year.
Back in '72, Rory's Live in Europe was a game changer for me. As guitar rekkids that made a difference in my life go, it ranks right up there with Live At Leeds, Truth, Funhouse, Electric Ladyland, and Second Winter. Rory's electric playing had a distinctive nervous energy and stinging tone -- the sound of his battered Strat (the first sunburst in Ireland, bought for him by his parents at great sacrifice, its finish worn off by his acidic sweat) run through a treble booster into an AC-30 or Fender combo amp -- replete with jazz-influenced lines, wide vibrato, squealing harmonics, and masterful use of techniques like right-hand muting and volume knob swells. (In the fullness of time, I've come to realize that Rory also seems to tap into the same deep well of Celtic modes as Richard Thompson, but I wasn't listening for such subtleties when I was 17.) He sang in a strangled cry, but sounded like he meant every word. He was also a master of slide, fingerpicked acoustic, and mandolin, and played serviceable harp (worn in a holder like Dylan's) and saxophone (a hangover from his showband days, the Irish equivalent of the chitlin circuit).
Born in Donegal, 1948, and raised in Cork, he'd grown up in a musical home, albeit one without a record player, and managed to connect the dots from Lonnie Donegan to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly and thence to the '50s Chicago bluesmen and their Delta forebears before making his way to Belfast's Maritime Hotel (Van Morrison's stomping ground with Them) and London's Marquee Club. While his approach to riddim always made him more than a mere blues copyist, as the '70s wore on, he continued to refine his own blues-rock style.
As fortune would have it, the bassplayer and drummer in the first good band I was in (SUNY at Albany, '74-'75) were both Gallagher freaks, so we used to play "Messin' with the Kid" and "Laundromat Blues" from Live in Europe, and a '78 interview with Stefan Grossman in Guitar Player provided almost as many profound clues as the '75 Hendrix issue of said rag. I kind of lost the thread after the albums Blueprint and Tattoo, which added an electric piano to the mix but didn't quite have the same spark (to borrow an idea from Rafi Zabor's novel The Bear Goes Home, Rory's "playing-with-other-people-in-front-of-an-audience" chops were better than his "playing-with-other-people" chops), but I remember being impressed by Photo Finish (which stripped the lineup back down to a trio and included good songs like "The Mississippi Sheiks" and "Brute Force and Ignorance") when I heard it in the store where I was working in '79.
More recently, I've had the good fortune to play in a band with Richard Hurley, another Roryphile, and it was after talking with him about Gallagher at Stooge prac that I got motivated to lay hands on a copy of the Montreaux double DVD, which is an embarrassment of riches with great video and sound quality, but almost too much to take in (and the lion's share of the footage comes from a '94 performance when Rory's ill health was visible in his appearance if not in his playing). Irish Tour 1974 is more to my liking, not only because of its watchable length, but because of the filmmaker's craft that director Palmer applies to his raw material (which captures Rory at an early peak).
The film joins Gallagher and his band in the middle of a shuddering jam on "Walk On Hot Coals" (remember when bands used to extemporize onstage?), but in general, its narrative arc follows the flow of a live date, from the dressing room to the stage and back again, intercut with interview material and footage of Rory and band sightseeing, shopping for gear, and jamming informally in a pub. (The latter gives a nice sense of place, another side of which is the brief appearance of British soldiers rolling through the streets of Belfast, a regular Gallagher tour stop even at the height of "the Troubles").
While the performance footage is obviously intercut from several different shows, the songs (besides the opener) are continuous and complete, and the liberties Palmer has taken only serve to enhance the feel of the live event: the nonverbal interaction between the players, the vibe of the room, the enthusiastic and demonstrative audience. The songs (especially "Tattoo'd Lady," "Who's That Coming," the tour de force "A Million Miles Away," and the set-closing rave-up "Bullfrog Blues") are all stupendous, as is the band: 20-year Gallagher veteran Gerry McAvoy on bass, SRV lookalike Rod de'Ath on drums, and pianist Lou Martin. Irish Tour 1974 is the only rock movie I've ever seen that gives me the same buzz I get when I'm performing onstage. It's a keeper.
When I met my sweetie, she was all set to move to Ireland, even had a line on a job working for the Brothers of Charity in County Kerry. Someday we'll have to visit the Emerald Isle, so she can see where her grandparents came from, we can walk the Dublin streets that Leopold Bloom walked, and I can pay a visit to Rory in his final resting place.