Rory in the sky

The long-coming canonization of an Irish hero

"Are your Irish friends coming to dinner?"
My mother, stuffing a turkey on a rain-drenched Thanksgiving day in 1976, was wondering if I was bringing Irish blues-rock guitar hero Rory Gallagher and his band home for our family's traditional evening meal. In fact, I wasn't "friends" with Rory. And until an hour or so before, I'd never met him.

Gallagher was in Dallas for a show at the now-defunct Electric Ballroom, and it had occurred to me--a huge fan--to invite the Gallagher band over for supper. It seemed a Thanksgiving kind of thing to do. With a bit of detective work, I found them registering at the downtown Holiday Inn. I went up to the guitarist--one of the most gracious humans ever--introduced myself, and made my offer.

Though he was clearly tired, Gallagher was nonetheless flattered. He thanked me effusively for the offer and referred me to his brother/best friend Donal, who served not only as the band's road manager, but also as Rory's business manager. Donal, equally soft-spoken and polite, explained why dinner would be impossible: They were late and hadn't yet had a sound check. But why didn't I come backstage after the show for drinks? Did I have tickets? How many did I need?

Rory Gallagher died two years ago last summer, on June 14, at age 47. He'd recently undergone a liver transplant; when complications set in, he didn't make it. His passing wasn't much of a big deal in the States; it was weeks before I learned of his death while skimming a guitar magazine. In fact, if you walk into any record store and try to buy albums from his extensive canon, well, good luck. For, despite carving a virtuoso's niche in a style later made popular in the U.S. by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gallagher's legacy has been criminally hard to find.

Yet across Europe, the U.K., Scandinavia, and Japan, Gallagher is saint-like in the truest sense of the phrase. He was a guitarist, writer, and performer of true genius and neon intensity; a generous, humble man who believed passionately in the power of music to heal. As such, his forays into the north of Ireland to play for rock-starved kids during the truly violent early '70s defied logic even as they defined courage.

It's stupid and cruel that an entire generation of American music fans doesn't have the slightest idea who Rory Gallagher is and hasn't had much chance of discovering him. But as we approach Thanksgiving some two decades after his flame-thrower performance at the Electric Ballroom, there is hope.

Donal Gallagher last week completed negotiations for the release of Rory's catalogue after years of record-company chicanery, both here and in Europe. The establishment of Capo Records, Rory and Donal's longtime signature label project, and a distribution arrangement with BMG Records should ensure that a new release program for all of Rory Gallagher's records--both solo and with his definitive late-sixties power trio, Taste--will be in effect by the first of the year.

"The catalog had been distributed by IRS Records," says Donal from his home in London, although IRS went into liquidation some 18 months ago. "It's all very convoluted, but IRS was taken over by Capitol/EMI, [which] has gone through some rather difficult times as well. Recording-wise, we've always been unlucky in America."

That's an understatement.
Gallagher broke up Taste not long after its historic performance at the Isle of Wight festival, then set out on his own. He signed a solo deal with Polydor, and within two years, on the strength of records like Live in Europe and Blueprint, Gallagher established a reputation in his homeland and on the continent for impassioned guitar artistry and steamhammer rock. A handsome, smiling man who favored checked lumberjack shirts and peeling Fender guitars, he mixed an archivist's love of rural American bluesmen with a finger-in-the-light-socket stage presence that bonded with the working class all over Europe.

On 1973's Tattoo, Gallagher--an avid fan of Russian cinema and American hard-boiled detective fiction--began to write tunes that, while still focused on pure energy, imbued a true narrative voice and a heightened sense of melody and wit. Both in performance and global context, the follow-up, Irish Tour '74, opened his singular talents to America.

The album was recorded during a series of shows throughout Ireland--including dates in Belfast that remain the stuff of legend. The tour was filmed for an apocryphal documentary that, until recently, was believed lost in a fire. But a security copy of the footage turned up in a processing lab, and Donal Gallagher has been editing the film, using up-to-the-moment technology to even out the sound quality.

Donal explains: "I looked at the footage, and I knew Rory's concerns with it being brought back into the market. It'd been done in the early '70s, and to bring it back in the '90s, well, he didn't want it to seem like Spinal Tap." But Irish Tour '74 is anything but satire. And the sound quality is uneven for the most dramatic of reasons.

"The numbers that were taped in Cork City were all very good because they were on Ronnie Lane's mobile unit," Donal says. "But other sections and performances which were shot in Belfast, we didn't have the benefit of the mobile. For insurance purposes or whatever, they wouldn't bring it into Dublin or Belfast.

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