`Wow! Nobody's asked me that one before," says Gary Moore, the self-exiled Irish guitar hero who has quite palpably just made his best record in 20 years. Unashamedly entitled Back To The Blues (following a couple of profile-lowering forays into more contemporary sounds), it sounds uncannily like a Marshall-stacked, all-cylinders-firing homage to his time in the late 1960s with Brush Shiels and Noel Bridgeman in Dublin's premier power trio, Skid Row. Minus the drum solos, of course. A passing query on the chances of a Skid Row reunion was, then, my winning entry into Gary's book of interview firsts. With such an incendiary approach - neither as mannered as his previous blues projects nor as slick as his hard rock albums - had he himself not noticed this spiritual reconnection with the ghost of Skid?
"I've never thought about it like that," he says. "But certainly it's got a lot of energy, mostly because we did it so quickly. If you take a long time over a record, you end up making something different from what you intended. This time I stuck to the plan and I was so proud when we finished it: it was exactly the record I'd wanted to make. "I went in feeling very free-spirited. It was done quickly, there's no pretences, and what you see is what you get. And, yeah, I suppose I did want to show what I could do."
Asked if he felt his back was against the wall, with the experimental pop albums, Dark Days In Paradise (1997) and A Different Beat (1999), having failed to engage his, or anyone else's, audience in significant numbers, Moore's response is both honest and sanguine.
"Most musicians make the same record every time, and that's fine," he says. "But the people I respected when I was growing up, like Jeff Beck - they weren't afraid to try something new. I've always tried to follow that rule myself. I would have got bored if I hadn't. I've made a blues album this time because I wanted to make a blues album.
"The same with the last record, which was an attempt to marry guitar with dance rhythms. With something like that, you're really crucified before you start. People who would be into what I do would probably hate those rhythms and the people into dance music would probably hate me!"
His personality is much warmer than I expected. There may be a mid-Atlantic twang in his singing, but his speech is still soft Belfast. His demeanour is friendly and open, his self-deprecating humour much more in evidence than any sign of his decades-old reputation for being bolshie. Gary Moore, it seems, is a real person in a rarefied business. He just happens to have an extraordinarily rich musical history.
Born in Belfast in 1952, Moore has gone through life like some musical Zelig in a time machine. He has played in all manner of musical settings - beat groups, country ballads, psychedelic folk, jazz fusion, Celtic rock - always, of course, coming "back to the blues".
One track on the new album, I Ain't Got You, comes straight from the 1965 Yardbirds repertoire, one that Moore has affectionately and validly plundered before. During the summer of 1965, when the North was awash with beat groups, Moore's school band, The Beat Boys, won their heat in a talent competition at Pickie Pool in Bangor, and got their picture in the local paper. "Yeah, and I also remember doing another one around that time, run by Eddie Kennedy at the Club Rado in Belfast," he says. "We actually won - the prize was £15 - and he handed us this empty envelope on the stage and said: `Don't worry, lads, we'll sort out the cheque later.' I'm still waiting!
"But there was a great scene in Belfast then. I remember seeing The Who at the Top Hat. I had a band called Platform Three by that time and we had to do a gig that very night. I remember finishing the gig and running all the way to where The Who were playing, hearing the sound of The Kids Are All Right from way up the street, throwing my three shillings or whatever it was at the guy on the door and pushing my way up to the front. It was a wonderful moment, and a great time to be growing up."
By 1969, aged 16, Moore had relocated to Dublin, joining Skid Row and beginning his recording career proper. He hung out with musicians like Granny's Intentions, Dr Strangely Strange and progressive folkies Sweeney's Men. Of the latter outfit, the esoteric Johnny Moynihan would periodically guest (on tin whistle, of course) with Skid Row, while the more no-nonsense Terry Woods would prove a useful man for a vulnerable prodigy to know.
"Terry was very, very good to me," says Moore. When Moore and Brush Shiels had disagreements, Terry would intervene in his favour.
"One time, Brush turned tail in fear like I'd never seen before in my life - and actually apologised to me the next day, which was a novel experience!" Moore says. "I haven't seen a lot of these people in years, but it doesn't mean I don't think about them.
"I did play with Dr Strangely Strange a couple of years ago - that difficult third album, Alter- native Medicine, 1997. It was great to see them all. They're very special people and they were very good to me in Dublin in the 1960s. I mean, they were the guys to hang out with then, the coolest people in town, very arty and bohemian. So if you got in with them, you were somebody."
OUTSIDE Dublin, Skid Row, unfortunately, were nobodies, though they did once jam with Led Zeppelin. Or did they?
"Er, kind of!" says Moore. "They felt sorry for us, basically, because we were all skint. Skid Row wasn't just the name of that band!
"We were all staying at the Holiday Inn in Los Angeles. They were playing at the Forum and they used to come and see us every night. They got pissed one night and John Bonham and Robert Plant got up. John sang and Robert played the drums. So no, we didn't quite jam with Led Zeppelin!"
It is, as his publicist rightly points out, rare indeed to find such a thoroughgoing 1960s veteran still only in his 40s. Common perception, however, would probably pigeonhole Gary as a 1980s artist who came through a period of seemingly joining and leaving Thin Lizzy every other week to a respectable semi-retirement, like Eric Clapton's, with a kind of AOR blues formula. The deferential Still Got The Blues (1989) and After Hours (1990) were and remain the most successful albums of his career, happily coinciding with a market ready for Blues Brothers stage shows and Levi'sad retroism. A 1994 album with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, going under the name of BBM, and the following year's Blues For Greeney, were doffs of the cap to old heroes Cream and Peter Green respectively. They also brought Moore his last UK chart placings - thus far. The BBM tour almost got to Ireland, but not quite. Since then, not a sausage for the Irish concert-going Moore fan.
"You know, every time we get offered dates it just doesn't come off," he sighs. "Every time there's a problem - though we've just been offered two shows in Dublin in May." With an album as blisteringly joyous and refreshing as Back To The Blues, out on March 3rd on Sanctuary records, the time is surely right for an Irish tour. As they used to say back in the last century: "We want Moore!"