Joe Dermody casts a view back on Rory Gallagher's outrageously brilliant 'Irish Tour '74' double album recorded in Belfast, Dublin and Cork.
With the death toll from The Troubles soaring in the 1970s, the notion of a star-bound guitarist from Cork bringing the blues to the youth of Belfast was at best unlikely, borderline reckless.
Rory Gallagher's outrageously brilliant 'Irish Tour '74' double album was recorded in Belfast, Dublin and Cork in the weeks just after Christmas 1973 and into January 1974.
It was the only window really when the then 25-year-old blues guitarist could probably rely upon there being a break from the killings. More than 250 people had been killed in 1973 alone.
Donal Gallagher, Rory's brother, still clearly recalls the buzz among music circles and his own trepidation walking along in the light rain, with his thumb out on Lower Road, Cork, starting out on his long hitching journey from Cork to Belfast.
It was also a personal fork in the road, and felt like the moment that his own definite career path was chosen. Music it was.
“We were staying in the Europa hotel in Belfast,” recalls Donal, stage manager and general tour manager. “But those days you were never sure the hotel would still be there when you'd get back after the show.”
The hotel, which has changed names several times over the decades, is widely known as “the most bombed hotel in Europe”. Having opened in 1971, the hotel endured 33 bomb attacks during The Troubles.
Logistics were a big challenge for Donal. As well as concerns for the safety of the fans, the vehicles carrying the film and sound equipment were subjected to extra security checks, nobody would take the risk of insuring the mobile studio for a trip into a war zone.
So many logistical challenges, along with the political upheaval at the time, it's remarkable that the album ever came to be recorded at all. Promoter Jim Aiken advised Rory to play his northern show just south of the border, and bring his fans down by bus.
Donal recalls Rory refusing point blank. He was a rock fan himself. In those days, most people didn't really have money. The internet didn't exist, of course.
Most people just didn't buy tickets in advance in those days; instead, they scraped the money together at the last minute and turned up at the door, pockets full of coins, haggling for tickets, pushing to get in.
Add the cost and complication of a bus trip south, Rory didn't want that for his fans.
A southern guitar icon taking his tour north of the border, Rory's Belfast show more than raised eyebrows. Everyone understood the dangers.
News of the show reached England. The Ulster Hall show was filmed by Tony Palmer, founder BBC Four's Kaleidoscope radio programme. Palmer also nearly fell foul of the security forces when filming scenes in downtown Belfast.
The Irish Tour '74 album also contains great tracks from the Dublin and Cork shows. In fact, the Cork shows were incredible, by all accounts. But Rory's insistence on playing Belfast just after Christmas was the one that still has a strong resonance even now. All about commitment. Music before politics.
Rory really was taking a big risk. Of course, while born into a Catholic household, Rory Gallagher wasn't really political. He didn't talk about it, and people just instinctively knew he was all about the music. In fact, he had a huge fan base among Protestant communities in Belfast.
“In an Irish tour, I always try to include Belfast and the North of Ireland,” Rory says in the Tony Palmer film. “After all, I lived there for a while and I learned a lot playing in the clubs there, so I’ve a sort of home feeling for the place.”
Rory wasn't entirely switched off from politics; he was just totally switched onto music. And the music world was already totally switched onto him at this time. By the time the 1974 Irish tour came about, Rory's name was by now a byword for virtuosity.
Rory was a legend among 'true' music fans. He wrote great songs, but he eschewed fame. He only released albums, never singles. He played the blues like a swamp legend from the deep south, which in Irish terms is exactly what he was.
Everyone knew that Rory walked the streets of Cork, regularly going to the cinema, always happy to stop and sign and autograph, but also moving fast, walking at speed like he was going somewhere. Which, of course, he very much was.
Rory was a legend among his fellow musicians too, particularly since his band Taste had played support for Cream's 1968 farewell concert in Royal Albert Hall, and again at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, where Taste had shared the four-day bill with Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell and others.
At the Isle of Wight, Taste took the stage just before Tony Joe White, the Louisiana country blues guitarist who wrote 'Rainy Night in Georgia' and 'Polk Salad Annie' (famously performed by Elvis). Rory's 'Irish Tour '74' album was dominated by electric power blues, but it also includes a mellow and moving cover of White's country ballad 'As The Crow Flies'.
While Rory died in 1995 of liver failure, aged 47, modern guitarists from Johnny Marr to Slash still credit him as an influence. Joe Bonamassa's debut album, A New Day Yesterday, contains a cover of Rory's 'Cradle Rock', one of several of Rory's self-penned songs which he captured brilliantly on 'Irish Tour '74'.
“Rory's genius on the guitar probably always overshadowed his own talent as a songwriter,” says Donal Gallagher, noting that his fellow musicians were very alert to Rory as both a writer and a musician.
Slash was particularly awe-struck in Rory's presence, as Donal recalls: “Slash was a big fan of Rory's. He came to a gig Rory played in Los Angeles in the 1990s. He came backstage before the show and Rory said 'Hi Slash, how are you doing?'
“Slash was really surprised. 'How do you know my name?' he said. Rory just said 'Well, I've got your albums, Slash, I know who you are'. Slash just wanted to say hello and probably get an autograph. Rory said 'Catch you later, if you're hanging around'.
“Towards the end of the show, Rory nodded over to me to give Slash a guitar and have him come up on stage for a jam. I went over and grabbed his arm and asked him to go up and play with Rory. Slash nearly lost his life. As cool a dude as he is, he was scared. (Scared, but Slash did jam with Rory, as he later told the Old Grey Whistle Test).
“I met Slash again two years ago at a show in Dublin. The BBC were interviewing him about Rory's 1974 Ulster Hall show. The BBC said it would be a good idea to bring Rory's guitar along [the iconic battered 'sunburst' Fender Stratocaster he bought in the now closed Crowley's Music Shop in Cork] to Slash's Dublin show in the O2 or Three Arena or whatever it was called then.
“The BBC were expecting Slash to plug the guitar in and play it, but when he came into the room he just looked at the guitar sitting there. Realising that it was Rory's guitar, it completely spooked him. He was uncomfortable even holding it.
“They took a photograph of the two of us, and he's just holding the strap. He said to me 'This is so scary'. This is the kind of respect he had for Rory.”
Joe Bonamassa, however, was less shy. Joe's then girlfriend, blues singer Sandi Thom, asked Donal to bring Rory's Strat to his shows in London's Hammersmith Odeon and Royal Albert Hall.
“Joe wanted me to come along to the shows. Of course, I realised it was really the guitar that he wanted to see, not me,” notes Donal. “He just wanted a rub of the relic, I suppose. He was in his element.”
At Bonamassa's show in the Royal Albert Hall, Donal was seated next to Nigel Kennedy.
The violinist has also cited Rory as a rock icon and a good model for how a soloist should perform, always connected to the music, always ready to improvise. In Royal Albert Hall, Kennedy sat there “gobsmacked” staring at the sunburst Strat in Donal's hands.
When you listen to 'Irish Tour '74', you can hear how engaged and in awe the audience is. In 2014, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the album, a box set of unreleased material from the tour was compiled.
The selections were curated by Daniel Gallagher, Donal's son. He had enough material to fill seven CDs from the gigs in Belfast, Cork and Dublin — complete with 43 individual tracks that have never been released before.
The songs on 'Irish Tour '74' were captured on multitrack tapes using the mobile studio owned by ex-Small Faces member Ronnie Lane. For the box set, Daniel also had access to the original Nagra tapes that provided the audio for Tony Palmer's film.
Daniel recalls how the crowds were different in each city: “Dublin are the most boisterous and cocky, and Belfast has everyone screaming like they’re so happy to be there.
“The tapes were still running when the band went off the stage and it’s lovely hearing the crowd screaming for so long because they really didn’t want it to end. In Cork, the sound is the best of the three concerts.” Donal Gallagher recalls that the two Cork City Hall shows were packed to capacity.
Some privileged fans were actually piled into the area behind the band, normally reserved for the orchestra. Rory also turned and addressed them from time to time.
As for the songs that made it onto the album, Donal has a personal fondness for 'Tattoo'd Lady', a song Rory wrote about the travelling fairgrounds that once visited Cork.
“To me, Tattoo'd Lady is very much a song about Cork. It's all about the fairgrounds. As kids, Rory and I would go up to the Mardyke, where they used to have the travelling fairgrounds. Or we'd go to Crosshaven or down to Youghal.
“There were fairground references in the song, like you could 'push the penny if you've got any'. Of course, back then we very often didn't have a penny to push. That to me has all the echoes of that childhood in Cork.
“Then there's the mystery of how you'd go up there the next day and that whole carnival would be stripped down and gone. The song was paralleling Rory's own lifestyle where, as a travelling musician, you tend to set up your gear, then a night or two later you're gone.
“There's all the excitement of the fairground with its exotic characters coming to town. At the time, it was an unusual thing to see a Tattoo'd Lady.”
Rory's cover of the Muddy Waters song 'I Wonder Who' also has a resonance for Donal. The Mississippi-born "father of modern Chicago blues" was, like Rory, both a talented musician and a fantastic songwriter.
“The song is Rory paying homage yet again to his teacher and master, if you like, Rory having done an album with him just a couple of years earlier for the London Muddy Waters Sessions ('72), when he was 71,” Donal recalls.
“Then there's 'Back On My Stompin' Ground', which was from the after-hours jam sessions in Cork. It's Rory really saying that's where it is. He wrote those songs in those couple of days about being back on his home turf, which is Cork.
“Then the album fades out with a short instrumental, a signature goodbye which he titled 'Maritime' [listed as 'Just A Little Bit' on the album credits], named after the blues club up in Belfast that Van had founded, which had by then become his residency.”
It's hard to single out individual tracks on such a master work. A double album, it only has ten tracks. For many, the 11-minute 'Walk On Hot Coals' is the barnstorming standout moment. For others, it's the relative peace of 'A Million Miles Away'.
What seems evident is that, confounding the many dangers and logistical obstacles that stood in the path of this epic album being made, the Gods really must have wanted Rory Gallagher to record 'Irish Tour '74'. And we mortals have the Gods to thank for that kindness.
* The 25th anniversary of Rory Gallagher's death takes place on June 14