AS DRESSING rooms go, it was probably fairly typical of an Irish venue in 1974. A white sink on the wall, a stripey armchair that probably still survives in some student flat, and a wooden crate of Guinness bottles for refreshment.
Such a humble setting gives little indication of what was going to follow. That Rory Gallagher and his band are about to make their way to the stage and perform one of the best concerts that anyone here will see in their lifetime. A blistering set of American blues given a contemporary rock twist by a 25-year-old Cork guitar genius.
It was a scene repeated at venues in Dublin, Belfast and Cork through the first week of January 1974, much of it recorded by British filmmaker Tony Palmer. The resulting documentary and live album have become classics of their genres and the 40th anniversary of their release has provided a fine excuse to revisit that tour and issue a whole bunch of recordings that haven’t been heard since.
INTO THE DANGER ZONE
Even deciding to do a gig in Belfast around that time was quite a step. Though the Miami Showband massacre hadn’t yet happened, international bands were already shunning the North.
And with good reason. Over 250 people had been killed in the previous 12 months in the province and, as well as IRA bombs, December had seen an outpouring of loyalist anger in response to the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement.
Rory Gallagher’s brother Donal remembers the constant back and forth with promoter Jim Aiken as they tried to set up the concerts amid the bloody chaos that might scupper everything. It had been suggested that a prudent course of action was to play a number of gigs south of the Border, and those who really wanted to travel from the North could do so.
“Rory flatly refused,” remembers Donal, whose official title as ‘road manager’ was just a handy catch-all for the myriad roles he fulfilled as the key member of his brother’s back-up team. “Rory was saying it wouldn’t be fair. As well as the ticket prices, the kids would also have to pay a bus or train fare.”
The guitarist was also keenly aware of his appeal to both nationalists and loyalists in the North, and those latter fans wouldn’t want to come south.
“In an Irish tour, I always try to include Belfast and the North of Ireland,” Rory says in the 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.”
This hometown feeling would have been reinforced by the fact that two of the three musicians who played with Rory at the time, Gerry McAvoy and Lou Martin, were from Belfast.
And so a series of gigs in the troubled city was finally arranged. Most people who were in the Ulster Hall remember the brilliant atmosphere, or Gallagher’s performance, the highlight of which was probably a stomping version of ‘Going to My Hometown’.
For brother Donal, however, being hands-on with organising the tour meant there were also no shortage of logistical headaches in the North. 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 on insuring the mobile studio for a trip to the war-torn city and filmmaker Tony Palmer nearly fell foul of the security forces when filming scenes downtown.
“And then there was the possibility of your hotel not being there when you went back to it,” chuckles Donal about the band’s base at the Europa, a premises that was damaged 33 times by bombs during the Troubles.
But the eventual gig was, as Belfast locals might say, a cracker. English journalist Roy Hollingworth was among those present.
“I’ve never seen anything quite so wonderful, so stirring, so uplifting, so joyous as when Gallagher and the band walked on stage,” he wrote in Melody Maker. “The whole place erupted, they all stood and they cheered and they yelled, and screamed, and they put their arms up, and they embraced. Then as one unit they put their arms into the air and gave peace signs. Without being silly, or overemotional, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life. It all meant something, it meant more than just rock ’n’ roll, it was something bigger, something more valid than just that.”
Rory’s efforts to play in Belfast during the Troubles are still appreciated by residents of the city, and earlier this year Donal visited a community group in a loyalist area of east Belfast who have added their voices to calls for a statue of Rory to be erected at the Ulster Hall venue.
GOING TO HIS HOMETOWN
After Belfast, the band headed south again for two appearances at the City Hall in Cork. At the time, Gallagher described his hometown as the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else.
“If you want to meet someone you know where to find them, and if you don’t want to meet someone, you can more or less go where you won’t meet them, which is kind of nice.”
The affection was mutual. If Gallagher was held in high esteem in Belfast, on Leeside his status was one of demi-god. And, in a peculiarly Cork way, Gallagher’s unfazed and unpretentious personality just added to his deified appeal. The guy in the denim jacket buying his newspapers in Eason or going to the Capitol cinema for a film had none of the affectations of a rock star. Special, but still ordinary like the rest of us.
“Obviously you don’t mind enjoying your success to some extent,” said Gallagher. “But I don’t think you have to change your whole lifestyle and your way of thinking to suit success. I just enjoy wandering around the street.”
As well as footage from the City Hall gigs, the 1974 film has scenes of Rory and Donal getting into a car outside their family home at Sydney Park off Wellington Road, and Rory chatting to punters at Crowleys music shop on Merchant’s Quay.
There’s also footage of the end of tour party and sing-song organised at Cork Boat Club in Blackrock village at the behest of Tony Palmer.
“Rory wasn’t an end-of-tour party kind of guy,” admits Donal.
By the end of January 1974, Rory and the band were off to Japan for further concerts and from there back to the US in a typically hectic schedule the guitarist would express some regret about later in his life. For now, however, he was living his childhood dream of being a professional musician. He also made it back to Cork in 1974 for the first screening of Irish Tour 74 at the Cork Film Festival.
“To have the film premiere in Cork made it that bit extra special,” says Donal. “As kids growing up in MacCurtain Street, Rory and I saw a lot of Cork Film Festivals and we’d go autograph hunting. Rory was always a movie buff, and was quite an expert on continental cinema. Cinema was huge with him to the day he died. Even his room in the hospital was covered in film posters.”
In June 1995, Rory passed away in London at the age of 47, following a liver transplant earlier in the year. Since then, the work of Donal and other members of the Gallagher family has helped keep his memory alive, while the digital age has made his music ever more accessible. Praise from the likes of Johnny Marr and Slash (whose new album contains a track inspired by Gallagher) has also helped pique interest.
“At the tribute events you’ll see guys as young as 12 or 13 playing Rory tracks,” says Donal.
That’s a wonderful sight for the Gallagher family to see, and also shows how there’s a whole new generation of fans ready to get emotional with the music of one of Ireland’s alltime greats.
Treasure trove treat awaits Gallagher fans
WHEN it came to wading through the archive of material left over from Rory Gallagher’s Irish tour in 1974, the guitarist’s nephew Daniel Gallagher wasn’t sure what awaited him.
Sure there would be outtakes, perhaps a few bits that might be worth putting on an anniversary edition of the classic live album. But what the 32-year-old didn’t expect to find was such a treasure trove. Enough material to fill seven CDs of material from the gigs in Belfast, Cork and Dublin — complete with 43 individual tracks that have never been released before.
It’s this material that will feature on the Irish Tour ’74 expanded deluxe edition, and there’s also a triple-album vinyl release from the Cork leg of the tour, as well as various other bits and bobs that will have any Gallagher fan salivating. “Of all of Rory’s albums, this one really deserved the royal treatment,” explains Daniel, a guitarist in his own right and the possessor of enough studio knowledge to be entrusted by his father Donal with the job of marrying the new bits to previous material.
No easy task. First, he had to work through the multitrack tapes from the legendary mobile studio owned by ex Small Faces member Ronnie Lane. He then had to wade through the original Nagra tapes that provided the audio for the film. And after all the hunting, listening, splicing and digitising, he then had to produce the leftover material.
“I had the choice that I could remix the whole album and make it sound very 2014, or I’d mix all the tracks that hadn’t been heard before and make them sound like the album that everybody loves,” explains Daniel. It wasn’t a difficult decision.
“If you look at Rory’s albums anyway, when he produced them himself, he didn’t go for some sort of clean 24-track sound — he always wanted a bit of grit and dirt in there. So cleaning it up would have gone against what he would have wanted it to sound like.”
Daniel also got valuable guidance from Robin Sylvester, engineer on several of Gallagher’s early albums and the ’74 tour.
One of the jewels of the re-release is the disc of 10 tracks that Gallagher and the band recorded during an afternoon in Cork City Hall during an extended jam session to get the sound levels right for that night’s recording.
As well as the music, Daniel uncovered a 15-minute section in which Rory chats about guitars and styles of playing. This may surface next year for Record Store Day.
The difference between the crowds in each city was also striking. “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.”
Daniel’s personal favourite from his discoveries is an 11-minute version of ‘Hands Off’, and there’s also a powerful version of ‘Going to My Hometown’ from the City Hall gig. “He refers to Cork as ‘the queen of the south’ and he really rams it home that he’s in his home town.”
After the Irish Tour ’74 is sorted, plans are afoot to delve into material from Taste — the group Gallagher fronted before he went solo — and to resurrect film of the band’s appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, a bill shared with Jimi Hendrix and The Who.
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