In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
The recent rioting and violence in U.S. cities forms the backdrop to this remembrance of the much-loved Irish blues-rock guitarist Rory Gallagher, who died on this day in 1995–making this the 25th anniversary of his death. The connection is simply this: in the early ’70s, when Belfast, Northern Ireland was a war-torn site of terrorist bombings and assassinations with rival paramilitary units roaming the streets, Rory defied the fear that kept other performers away. Gallagher returned repeatedly to the shattered European capital, playing sold-out shows that brought Catholics together with Protestants, Loyalists together with Nationalists, healing the region’s division with music. For a few magic hours, anyway.
The Irish still remember his bravery and of course his music–on this day especially–though both Belfast and Ireland have transformed dramatically since. The peace agreements between the warring sides were signed in 1998, just three years too late for Rory Gallagher to witness the achievement.
Commercial success eluded Gallagher and didn’t seem to interest him. Truth be known, his reputation and influence are a better gauge of his greatness than record sales. Consider the guitar greats that have credited Rory as a key inspiration: Brian May, the Edge, Johnny Marr, Slash, and Joe Bonamassa, for a start. John Lennon and Bob Dylan were avowed fans. Rory’s own heroes–Muddy Waters, Albert King, and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name a few–invited him on stage and into their recording sessions. The Rolling Stones wanted Rory to join the band when Mick Taylor departed–a few guitarists have made this claim about themselves, but in Rory’s case it appears to be factual).
His virtuosic playing was fierce and fluid; his live shows were electrifying and legendarily long. He mixed the blues idiom he loved with a light Celtic strain, whether covering acoustic Mississippi delta material or amped-up Chicago-style blues. As his countryman Van Morrison had also discovered, the Celtic people have an affinity for blues music that runs deep. The Irish in particular have their own history of oppression and injustice, after all.
When Rory Gallagher passed away a quarter-century ago, he was just 47. The music world took the shock hard, having had hopes that Rory would have many more recordings in him, and more concert tours. But the legacy he leaves behind is full of achievements and, yes, fantastic covers. Here’s a few to get started with, as we raise a toast to Rory Gallagher.
Rory Gallagher with Jack Bruce – Politician (Cream cover)
When Rory invited ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce up to jam in 1990, it was a spontaneous reunion of old friends playing the same festival. Rory’s first band, Taste, had opened for Cream back in the day. (Eric Clapton took a liking to Rory, and arranged for Taste to tour North America with Blind Faith, Clapton’s next stop after Cream.) Here the men get reacquainted on Bruce’s composition “Politician” from Wheels of Fire. The cover is unrehearsed, but therefore free in feeling. Its message about politics and politicians seems as relevant today as it did in 1968, when it first came out.
Rory Gallagher – I Take What I Want (Sam & Dave cover)
The excitement of Rory’s live shows were not easy to replicate on his studio recordings. But this cut is a success on that count, as he revs up Sam & Dave’s “I Take What I Want” (co-written by Issac Hayes). This material— soulful R&B as opposed to blues—was more in Van Morrison’s wheelhouse than Rory’s. But the whole band is firing on all cylinders, and Rory makes it his own by letting his guitar do the talking.
Rory Gallagher – As the Crow Flies (Tony Joe White cover)
Rory gives his band a mid-show break for this one, from their magisterial Irish Tour ’74 album. Resonator slide guitar, mean harmonica, and nothing more. Yet there’s a variety of textures and techniques within the performance, and moods ranging from wistful to defiant. The song itself is by Tony Joe White, known for his classics like “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia.” If Tony Joe White has a large following in Ireland, you can guess why.
Rory Gallagher – Out on the Western Plain (Leadbelly cover)
Rarely do you hear Leadbelly—or any blues song—played with the Celtic tuning Rory uses here. Like Jimmy Page, who used the same tuning on the Led Zeppelin songs “Black Mountain Side” and “Kashmir,” Rory loved to switch from raunchy electric blues to a sweet mandolin or acoustic guitar. Both men were admirers not just of the old blues figures like Leadbelly, but also of their contemporary Bert Jansch, the Scottish musical innovator who helped develop this kind of sound. (Page’s “Black Mountain Side” is a thinly disguised redo of Jansch’s “Black Water Side” arrangement.)
Rory Gallagher – Empire State Express (Son House cover)
More resonator guitar magic, this time from a later stage of Rory’s career. It’s from his Fresh Evidence album, which marked a return to the template he had established in the early ’70s, of slipping a solo acoustic blues cover into a collection of electrified originals. Son House wrote “Empire State Express” at a later stage of his life, after employment as a porter for the New York State railroad company. A particularly strong line that Rory further embellished:
I’m gonna tell you what that mean ol’ train will do.
Take your woman away, shoot black smoke back at you.
Rory Gallagher – I’m Tore Down (Freddie King cover)
Here’s Rory live in Ireland, 1972, breaking in a new drummer and tearing it up on “Tore Down,” a Freddie King cover. This free-wheeling approach and gritty sound (though not the song itself) is captured on 1971’s Live in Europe album. Eric Clapton later recorded “Tore Down” on the From the Cradle album; he credited Rory with inspiring his return to the blues that the Cradle album represented.
If you want to find out how the Rory Gallagher legacy is being carried forward by his family (and they’ve been pretty busy), visit Rorygallagher.com.