A million miles into Rory Gallagher's blues
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The song’s about four minutes in when a slow, understated guitar solo kicks in, never calling for attention but simply demanding it by its presence. It’s tucked within the space, the lack of notes and the oceans where the last bend is still slowly ringing out before the next run confidently steps in.
It’s the highlight of “A Million Miles Away,” a nine-and-a-half minute epic at the center of Rory Gallagher’s live Irish Tour ’74 album and one of dozens of highlights from Gallagher’s career. He made his name in the 1970s while peers across the Irish Sea in England were earning massive worldwide acclaim in roughly the same field, powering American rhythm and blues through electric guitars and reshaping the genre and the expectations that come along with that. In order to play those long, hypnotic solos onstage, they were supposed to cut a few radio-friendly singles to move those LPs and keep the record label in the black.
Gallagher never did that. From his early days right up to his untimely death in 1995, he recorded his albums as he wanted, with five- and 10-minute tracks that had his distinct phrasing and guitar style played to his vision, and from there he packed up his guitar and two or three more musicians and hit the road. It kept him off of a lot of headlining packages, but it got him in the building. I only discovered him because of one of those peeks through the door, buried within Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival 1970, a two-CD look-back at the famous festival I picked up in high school in the late 1990s.
The headliners that got me in the gate were obvious. Bands I still love now — The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan — bands I used to like and don’t listen to anymore — The Doors, basically — and my first taste of some true giants — Free, Miles Davis, Leonard Cohen, etc. Included within the etc. was Taste, fronted by Gallagher and represented by “Sinner Boy.” The Isle of Wight was as ragtag a 600,000-strong festival could be, but even within those confines, Gallagher’s own practices seemed stripped down, with his wardrobe choice of flannel shirts and artistic decision to eschew effects pedals for that purer channel from his Stratocaster straight back to the amp. All that was highlighted within the liner notes, and the sound itself went deeper still. Raw, ragged, unadorned and unashamed.
So much of this part of the search within the deep realms of rock and roll at this point for me was looking for something real. It started with a dissatisfaction with current music and continued when some of the more popular bands from the 1960s and ’70s proved to be less interesting than I wanted them to be. Grand Funk Railroad, for instance, seems interesting in the moment but stops delivering after a while. Taste immediately felt different. I wound up tracking down their first two albums and two of Gallagher’s solo records in flea markets, but beyond those older guys in the record stores and tending the flea market stands, Gallagher felt like a secret.
And he still does. There’s a great documentary on him, Ghost Blues, by Ian Thuillier that goes a long way in filling in the gaps that were left by the albums. Listening to Deuce or Irish Tour ’74 should certainly go far enough in converting anyone interested in this kind of music just through the tangible excitement and passion behind the music, but the film relays the decisions behind the details that made him such an interesting character. His refusal to acknowledge the singles market for fear that it could taint his albums, his shows and possibly his career is a window into his purist approach to his music.
Then there’s the fact that he’s an Irish musician championing a very Irish reading on American blues at one of the more violent times in Ireland’s modern history. Spending so much of my adult life in and around Boston has made it impossible to not become interested in Ireland’s saga, especially from its independence to the Troubles that raged while Gallagher was in the prime of his career. Despite the bombings and terrorism, he made it a point to play even the more dangerous sections of Northern Ireland, understandably turning him into something of a folk hero. One listen to Irish Tour ’74 and his impact on the region becomes obvious.
It’s his dedication to the music not as an homage-driven practice but as his own artistic impression that makes his music last, though. He uses the American blues as a springboard for a sound that was and remains uniquely his. That’s what drew me to him so quickly, and that’s what sustains all the repeated listens to his work. Operating in an era with countless aspiring guitar heroes worshipping the roots of the Mississippi Delta and turning that into hours-long theatrics onstage, Gallagher took a much more earnest and honest approach to the form.
Rather than act as some kind of snobbish slave to 12 bars while simultaneously pouring on every effect and time signature, he channeled something inside, spun it back through the guitar with no filter and presented it wherever he could. It’s much more powerful than a history lesson. It’s something deeper that continues to resonate in the space between the notes.
Dec. 2, 2014
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com