Cork Opera House 1987: How Rory Gallagher showed he could still rock 

A tribute concert this week pays homage to Rory Gallagher's blistering hometown gig in the mid-1980s, an era when life was already taking its toll on him 
Cork Opera House 1987: How Rory Gallagher showed he could still rock 

Rory Gallagher at the Olympia in Dublin in early 1988, a few months after his Cork Opera House gig. No pictures survive of the Cork gig. Picture: Getty Images/Independent

It was an older, more careworn Rory Gallagher who stepped on stage at Cork Opera House on November 4, 1987. At 39, Cork’s greatest rocker had lost some of his previous leanness and intensity. He looked tired around the eyes, this warhorse who’d spent so long at the frontline. 

But it took all of 30 seconds for the woes and wrinkles to fall away as he plunged into Continental Op, one of the strongest tracks from his summer 1987 album, Defender. Backed by long-time mainstays of bassist Gerry McAvoy and drummer Brendan O’Neill, Gallagher blazed through this blues blitzkrieg. It was as if an earthquake had struck Emmet Place.

“Rory wasn’t as fiery. A lot of the fire had gone out of him – because of one thing or another. His illness or whatever,” says Barry Barnes, leader of the Rory Gallagher tribute group Sinnerboy. “But the structure of his guitar solos was amazing. Perhaps not as wild as it used to be. Every solo told a story. It was so well put together – a beautiful, beautiful concert.” 

That Cork show, which in many ways put the fires under a Gallagher comeback, was captured for posterity in a live video (which can be enjoyed in full on YouTube). And now its spirit is to be conjured at the Opera House as Barnes and Sinnerboy – named after Gallagher’s 1971 belter Sinner Boy – recreate the gig from start to finish on Friday October 29.

“I think Cork awakened a little bit to Rory in ’87,” says Barnes, quite an authority on his hero's music. “I’m not sure why. It must have been a good year. It was just a really great gig.” 

Gallagher passed away in 1995 aged 47 after complications following a liver transplant. But the idea that he had peaked in the Seventies isn’t really borne out if you listen to his catalogue says Barnes. With each new record, he progressed as songwriter, musician and artist. And if he wasn’t quite the rock’n'roll superman of 10 years previously, Cork 1987 nonetheless saw him operating at the height of his musical powers.

“People say he was best in the Seventies. For me, he was better with every album,” says Barnes. “Every album he brought out, I thought it was better than the one before, right up to Fresh Evidence [Gallagher’s1990 swan-song].” 

Gallagher had been coming through a rough patch in the years leading up to the Opera House show. He’d had a falling out with his label Chrysalis. Which was why Defender was self-released. Going independent was a blow to Gallagher.

He was also frustrated to see his milieu of frills-free blues-rock fall from fashion through the Eighties. It had been replaced by the pantomime genre of “hair metal”– a style of music he loathed. He wasn’t joking when he said he’d rather play with oldies The Shadows than with cool kids on the block Bon Jovi.

He’d started drinking and taking drugs (he looks visibly bloated on stage at the Opera House). And yet that old genius endured. And Defender was regarded by aficionados as up there with his finest.

“Defender is his most primal album in a decade and a half, based on his love for and faith in the blues, his encyclopaedic knowledge of elemental American music,” writes Julian Vignoles in his biography of Gallagher, Rory Gallagher: The Man Behind the Guitar.

Defender was a concept LP of sorts. Gallagher was a huge fan of noir detective stories and the project was his tribute to the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett (Continental Op, the first song he played in Cork, was named after a Hammett novel). He had elaborated on his love of hard-bitten detectives in a 1987 interview with Bill Graham of Hot Press, in which he had likened gumshoes to travelling bluesmen.

“I suppose I’m no great fan of the law or detectives, because they’re not always the nicest people – but in the movies they‘re always interesting because you don’t know their past,” he had told Graham.

“They just arrive in a city and set up an office. I’m not interested in the violence, it’s the characters, the remarks they make and the loyalties: particularly the code of honour between police and thieves in the French gangster movies. I mean there’s eating and drinking in all that stuff.” 

A screengrab of Rory Gallagher playing Cork Opera House in 1987.
A screengrab of Rory Gallagher playing Cork Opera House in 1987.

Live at Cork Opera House 1987 leans heavily on old blues material. Gallagher performs three songs from Defender and five covers, including numbers by Lead Belly, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson.

“The setlist in Cork was weighted towards the blues,” says Barnes. “What we’re going to do is do the Cork thing but intersperse it. If you look at the running time of the Cork gig it was one hour 27 minutes.

“Now Rory would never go on stage for just one hour 27 minutes. He wouldn’t have broken into a sweat by then. They will have done other things that weren’t filmed. The other thing is, if we go to Cork and go on stage and not play A Million Miles away and Tattoo’d Lady – we won’t get out of Cork. It will be the hits.” 

Gallagher is today acknowledged as one of the greatest ever rock virtuosos. And new light has been shed on key moments from his career – such as his 1975 invitation/ audition to play with the Rolling Stones. Gallagher had been summoned to Rotterdam just as he was about to jet to Japan on tour (this before he developed his chronic fear of flying).

Mick Jagger believed Gallagher could make the ideal replacement for Mick Taylor, who’d dramatically quit the Stones. Gallagher went and jammed with Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts. But Keith Richards, in one of his druggy phases, had missed Gallagher’s try-out because he was in a chemical haze. By the time he had rejoined the land of the living, Gallagher had left for Japan.

“It wouldn’t have worked,” says Barry Barnes of Rory Gallagher as a Rolling Stone. “Rory is not a sideman. Ronnie Wood is perfect for that and Rory wouldn’t have been. He would not just have followed. He had too much to say for himself to just play rhythm guitar for somebody.” 

Barnes discovered Gallagher after going to Rare Records in his native Manchester in 1969 to purchase the latest Led Zeppelin. It was sold out. So he bought a record by Gallagher’s band Taste instead. Smitten with the Corkman’s playing, he made sure he was in the crowd when Taste headlined Manchester’s Free Trade Hall several weeks later.

Veteran tribute act Sinnerboy hope to recreate the spirit of the Cork gig. 
Veteran tribute act Sinnerboy hope to recreate the spirit of the Cork gig. 

“I walked in and was really disappointed,” he says. “Instead of the wall of amps I was used to there was just this one little Vox amp on a kitchen chair. And I thought, ‘oh no, I’m not going to like this’. It’s not going to be like Hendrix’. And of course Rory ran on, plugged his guitar into that box and blew my brains out.” 

In Cork this week, Sinnerboy won’t be trying to recreate the 1987 concert note for note. They see the evening as a celebration of Gallagher and his legacy rather than as an attempt to reprise his music.

“It’s about the spirit of it. We try to recreate the atmosphere,” says Barnes. “Nobody can play guitar like Rory. We want to try and recreate the memories. The thing I’ve always said about Sinnerboy is that it’s not a band on stage and an audience watching. It’s a group of Rory fans getting together. It’s a celebration. It just so happens that some of us have learned how to play the songs and some of us are in the audience. It doesn’t matter. We’re all family.”

  • Sinnerboy will recreate Rory Gallagher’s Live at Cork Opera House gig at Cork Opera House on Friday,  October 29

More in this section

Scene & Heard

Music, film art, culture, books and more from Munster and beyond.......curated weekly by the Irish Examiner Arts Editor.

Sign up