Rory Gallagher: Blues – Giving Ireland’s greatest blues guitarist his due

Fri, May 31, 2019, 13:11



Rory Gallagher



It is a sobering thought that Blues, the new Rory Gallagher collection, is released in what would have been his 50th year of recording. Sadly, it was not to be. Gallagher died in June 1995 aged 46 from complications after a liver transplant. By then his career had slumped. His beloved blues-rock genre had faded and he had become, in that unforgiving way of celebrity, a figure of the past. His death, however, served to remind us, particularly on this island, what a major talent he possessed and, perhaps more importantly, what he meant to young people, North and South, at a very difficult time in the 1970s and early 1980s when his eagerly awaited show was practically the only show in Dublin, Cork or Belfast. 

Today, his face appears on stamps, he is memorialised in statue in his birthplace of Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, with another planned for Belfast. Plaques have been erected in Dublin, Cork and Belfast, while Rory Gallagher Corner in Temple Bar in Dublin features a sculpture of his iconic sunburst Stratocaster guitar. Outside Ireland his reputation among guitar and blues aficionados is secure: he is considered one of the great white blues guitarists of the rock’n’roll era, a distinctive stylist who – modestly – would forever be in awe of his idols. 

Noted blues writer Jas Obrecht, in a strong biographical essay accompanying the 36-track three-CD package (there is also a single CD option), recalls Gallagher telling a radio interviewer that he still regarded himself as a student, “but I think once you get to a certain age you start to see that whatever little talent you have, you do have a responsibility to pass it on. I know I’m not Elmore James or Muddy Waters, but I certainly have the power to enlighten people to their music – and on top of that, hopefully end up with something that stands up as my own document.”

Rory Gallagher - Should've Learnt My Lesson

There was something about the blues that just fitted him. And there was something about a concert stage that brought out the best in him

That his “own document” continues to prosper is due in large part to his brother and former manager Donal who has managed the Gallagher legacy with equal measures of loving care and relentless advocacy. However, if Rory Gallagher’s name is fondly remembered, contemporary blues remains in the shadows, occasionally lit up by a Jack White or a Black Keys. Few African-Americans play the blues; in their communities the angry voice of rap tells their stories. 

I doubt if the Irishman would have approved. He was always soft-spoken if spirited in opinion. There was something about the blues that just fitted him. And there was something about a concert stage that brought out the best in him. These three CDs are divided into studio/radio cuts, acoustic outtakes and live recordings, the bulk previously unreleased. They each have their highlights, but it is the live tracks which arguably most crackle with raw energy. That said, the opening track, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, from 1982’s Jinx sessions, fairly bristles with attitude. Tore Down (1973) and I Could’ve Had Religion (1972) feature lean and fluent guitar, while 1971’s I’m Ready, with his hero Muddy Waters, must have had him pinching himself.

The acoustic tracks are interesting – he was such a nimble player, as on 1976’s Pistol Slapper Blues – while the live tracks include three blistering songs from a 1982 Glasgow show. That was his peak. Music was changing and so was his audience. But the show went on, and there are notable cuts from the late 1980s – and one or two best forgotten. Indeed, one of the most poignant moments is his hit-and-miss contribution to a 1994 Peter Green tribute album. Within a year the tributes would flow for him.