WHEN Taste headlined the Isle of Wight rock festival in August 1970, the Irish band were at the height of their powers.
“It was one of our final shows,” remembers drummer, John Wilson. “We had no money. Our equipment had been stolen the night before — I had to play with bits and pieces of borrowed kit. But we did not look like guys who did not like each other.”
Anyone watching the celebrated live recording of the performance — clips of which are available for perusal on YouTube — will be in little doubt they are witnessing something special. With his shaggy hair and intense expression, frontman Rory Gallagher resembles a rock god fallen to earth; to his side Wilson and bassist Richard McCracken are all sound and elemental fury. It’s an old- school, head-banging tour de force.
The Isle of Wight should have marked Taste’s coronation as one of the great blues outfits of the era. Certainly, at the time they were seen as potential rivals to Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. Within months, however, Taste had broken up, with Gallagher going on to a long solo career halted by his death in 1995 at age 47. But there are those who maintain that he did his best work during the Taste years.
“In Taste, Rory was able to do whatever he wanted,” says Wilson, who argues that the Cork blues legend never fulfilled his potential after the break up of his first ensemble. “When we split he became Rory the frontman — Rory the artiste. That wasn’t him.”
Gallagher was shy and ill-suited to the egotistical elements of rock. With Wilson and McCracken at his back, he had the support he required. Going solo jarred with his temperament. He never wanted to be the centre of attention. That position, he felt, was reserved for the music.
“When he set out on his own he had to put on a show, just like everyone else. He had a big lighting rig — because that is what was expected. He had to do the same routine every night. The pressure on Rory to be Rory was extreme — it was never like that with Taste. Out on his own, it had to be the Rory Gallagher show.”
Wilson returns to Cork next week to pay tribute to his late friend. John Wilson’s Taste, featuring Sam Davidson on lead guitar and Alan Niblock on bass, will perform material from Gallagher’s days as a band leader — though the drummer cautions these won’t be note-by-note covers.
Instead, the musicians will draw on their jazz backgrounds and put a modern, improvised stamp on the music. Gallagher’s solo material will however be off the agenda. It is a celebration of the guitarist as part of something bigger.
Some would say this is an appropriate way to approach the songbook as Taste in many ways were a plugged-in jazz ensemble, says Wilson. Even at the zenith of their popularity there was no show-boating or playing to the crowd. Rewatching Isle of Wight you can see it is all about the performance — an approach that, as Wilson says, chimed with Gallagher’s shy personality. He lived to play, with the other aspects of stardom sitting uncomfortably on his shoulders.
“In Taste there wasn’t a show — it was three guys playing music. You never got the same performance two nights running. It was about us being creative. After Taste, it became different for Rory.”
Taste were formed by Gallagher Cork city in 1966. The line-up originally consisted of the guitarist, with the late Eric Kitteringham on bass, and Norman Damery on drums. A cult following in Belfast served as a bridgehead to the UK and, by the late-60s, they were established on the circuit there — and soon signed by Polydor Records.
Fans included Eric Clapton and Yardbirds leader Jeff Beck. Within the industry, the consensus was that they had the potential to be huge — a position that a spot opening for Clapton’s Cream at Hyde Park appeared to confirm.
Gallagher was always ambitious and it is often assumed that he broke up Taste because he wanted to go solo. The truth is both more prosaic and heartbreaking, by Wilson’s telling. Far from splitting for the traditional “creative reasons”, the demise of Taste was due to the off-stage machinations — for which none of the ensemble can be held culpable.
“It’s the first thing everyone asks,” says Wilson. “Why did we break-up? Did we have a falling out? All of that kind of stuff.
“When a band splits, it’s never pretty. The truth is that it was about money. We were told it was being invested. And we were all broke.”
The band had many adventures prior to their dissolution amid wrangles about cash ( the big
problem: none had a penny to show for their toil).
One highlight, Wilson recalls, was being invited by Eric Clapton to tour the United States as
support to his Blind Faith supergroup.
“That was one of the biggest tours of all time. The rumour was that Blind Faith had been paid a million up front. We were playing stadium and ice-rinks, to upwards of 20,000 people. None of us had ever seen anything like it. The whole thing was incredible.”
They didn’t quite receive the superstar treatment — but, seeing themselves as humble artisans, this didn’t matter.
“A lot of the crowd were still finding their seats when we were playing. But it was just amazing to be out there.”
Taste got on with Clapton and his crew, Wilson recalls. But because of Gallagher’s introverted
personality, they weren’t one big happy family on the road together.
“We enjoyed being in America as much as anyone would. Rory enjoyed playing the gigs. He would have been happier playing a club to 300 people. That was just his personality.
“He never opened up to people. He was only Rory Gallagher for two hours on stage. The rest of the time he was this entirely other person.”