October 16, 2008
Plugged In Straight and Rocked It
Rory Gallagher has been one of my musical detours lately. Huge in Europe, Rory is known here primarily to blues/rock guitar freaks. He was part of the British (Isles) Invasion, first coming up with the Irish band Taste in the late '60's. He went solo early in the '70's, releasing Rory Gallagher and Deuce in 1971. During the '70's, he was a road warrior (again, primarily in Europe), but his health began to decline steadily toward the end of the '80's from touring rock disease (primarily alcohol in Rory's case, but also drugs prescribed to him to alleviate anxiety). He died in '95 from an infection he developed after the liver transplant that was to save his life.
Gallagher first came to my attention in the middle '70's when he was on the cover of the first issue of Guitar Player I ever bought (long before I ever played guitar myself). Not long after that, I found an album called Sinner . . . and Saint, which culled songs from his first two solo albums. He has always been the very image of a straight ahead, "no bullshit" type of rocker, a guy who could play to stadiums with none of the rock star attitude . . . the Irishman of Welsh descent with a deep reverence for the blues and humility in the face of the great wonder of music, a guy who would talk at great length to any one at all who shared his love for music. He was known for his trademark beat-to-hell '61 Strat which he plugged directly into mid-size combo amps (a Vox AC30 is in evidence in a couple of the clips below, and he was also fond of '50's vintage Bassmans). Though he would use effects on rare occasions (such as a treble booster . . . on a Strat???!!!), his image will always be that of the flannel-clad blues purist who plugged in straight and rocked it.
Later in the '70's, he would stick closer to the blues/rock genre a la Stevie Ray Vaughn, but on his first two albums he followed the lead of other blues rockers at the time by making pop music from an expanded blues-based vocabulary. And while I think he is a completely legit blues guitarist, it's the other stuff that really attracts me. To me, Rory is at his best when he recontextualizes his blues guitar, when he stretches for different dynamics and textures. Mind you, his forms are never radical (he seems almost too humble to do any real violence to the genre he loves), but it's here that he really separates himself from the Eric Clapton wannabes of the world.
And of course he is, above all, a guitar player. In spite of his serious chops, Rory has an economy of style that, while not exactly minimal, is always directly to the point, even when it is strutting a certain level of virtuosity. While he is never really outside of his blues guitar box, he reaches to the very corners to find fresh uses of a common language. This stuff isn't exactly Captain Beefheart smashing up the blues, but it is almost always riveting.
Well, what would a blog be without a couple Internet nuggets? Above is a picture of Rory's '61 Stratocaster. If you really get into this and sit through a bunch of YouTube clips, you can see the guitar deteriorate over the years. I get a kick out of the guys who comment on Rory's "professionalism", which they say is indicated by his frequent re-tuning of his guitar on live television "just to make sure it's perfect". One look at that guitar will tell you that the reason he re-tunes all the time is that guitar, which is beat to shit, allegedly spent a couple nights in a mud puddle (shades of my Silvertone, which years ago Gabe Saavedra found in a puddle not far from where I loaded in some gear and left the guitar on the roof of my truck), and doesn't even have matching tuners. What a beautiful guitar.
Here come the YouTube clips. This first one, "Bullfrog Blues", is from a show in France in 1980. I love the sheer anarchy and aggression of this clip, with the crowd spilling all over the stage, swarming around Rory, and even coming right up in front of the drum kit at the back of the stage to give the drummer some. The slide guitar here is great, and apparently someone gave Rory a wireless, and he's having way too much fun. Knowing the way he drank, I got pretty scared when I saw him climb up on top of the bass stack. There is a better color version of this clip on YouTube, but I prefer the grainy video and compressed sound of this one.
Here are a couple French TV show clips from '71, apparently the first live show with the trio he recorded the first two albums with. The sound isn't bad, all things considered, but that Vox doesn't quite cut it a lot of the time. Would have been nice to hear Rory through a hot-rodded Super Reverb during this set. These are a couple of my favorite songs from his early period, though I like the studio versions better because the guitar sound is better.
And here's "Moonchild", from the same 1980 show as "Bullfrog Blues" above, only this time with a slightly better color video. Just listen to him rip through this:
There's plenty of rockism here, replete with guitarface and bad boy strut. There are '70's rock staples here that will jab uncomfortably at the postpunk aesthetic. But, now that the kids are trying to rock again (this time without the irony), this is an essential lesson on how it's done.
Finally, a small Rory Gallagher playlist. These are my favorites, all from the first two albums:
"Used to Be"
"I'm Not Awake Yet"
"Don't Know Where I'm Going"
"Maybe I Will"
"Whole Lot of People"
"There's a Light"
"Out of my Mind"
"Crest of a Wave"
"I Fall Apart"
"Just the Smile"
"For the Last Time"
Well, actually, that's pretty much all the first two albums, so just get both of them.