Devoted followers of Sixties guitar gods always have a place in their prayer book for players like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and The Who’s Pete Townshend. It would be a sin if they forgot to turn the page to Rory Gallagher.
Like Hendrix, Gallagher left this world way too early, but his legacy doesn’t seem to be as fully appreciated. While Hendrix’s catalog continues to be explored (or exploited), Gallagher’s deep well of blues, folk, and rock material has yet to find its way into a box set.
Until it does, the recently released Crest of a Wave: The Best of Rory Gallagher (Eagle Rock Entertainment) answers some of his fans’ prayers. Years before U2’s explosion, as Billboard magazine’s Ed Christman points out in the album’s three-page career retrospective, it was Gallagher who put Ireland of the rock map. There was a bona fide, electrified style and grace as traditional Irish instruments like bagpipes and fiddles went temporarily back in the attic. Gallagher eventually played with blues legends such as Muddy Waters and Albert King, and was invited by the Rolling Stones to replace Mick Taylor. Talk about standing on holy ground.
Gallagher, 47 years old when he died in 1995 after years of excessive alcohol use, was not only a phenomenal player but an extraordinary performer. And while seemingly millions claim to have witnessed Hendrix, Townshend and Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee wreak havoc at Woodstock during the glorious summer of ’69, I was one of the few thousand who had the privilege of seeing two master musicians play it straight a few weeks earlier in Chicago. Gallagher invaded America for the first time as the frontman for a Cream-like powerhouse trio named Taste, and they opened the show for Clapton’s supergroup formation of Blind Faith that included Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker.
That incredible Sunday evening in July at the International Amphitheatre may not rival what happened in upstate New York less than a month later, but it changed one impressionable teenager’s musical tastes forever.
Not-so-fast forwarding forty years, Clapton this summer enjoyed a formidable reunion with Winwood, and their tour stop in Denver brought back a flood of musical memories. It was a no-brainer to keep following Clapton, who I’ve seen many times since in numerous venues, with multiple playing partners from Mark Knopfler to Doyle Bramhall II and Derek Trucks. Gallagher was the wild card, though. After providing a brief Taste of what was to come, he left the group and served up a prominent and rewarding solo career that satisfied hungry customers worldwide. Looking back with regret, I would have traded in a few of those Clapton concerts for one more chance to see Gallagher play live again.
Crest of a Wave helps put Gallagher's career in context by highlighting some of his best work off solo albums like Blueprint (“Walk on Hot Coals”), Calling Card (“Do You Read Me”), Photo Finish (“Shadow Play”) and Tattoo (“A Million Miles Away”). Those original albums, along with releases like Taste’s On the Boards, the landmark Irish Tour '74 and Live in Europe, remain in my collection, but the record player was dismantled long ago.
Fortunately, the digital age keeps Gallagher’s legacy alive, with most of his solo handiwork available, along with significant compilations, at iTunes and other online services such as the UK’s hmv.com and play.com. Unfortunately, Crest of a Wave doesn’t delve deeper into long lost tracks, hidden treasures or blasts from his Stratocaster past to enhance certain Taste buds. And his powerful live performances with the brilliant guitar solos, as much a trademark as those plaid flannel shirts with the rolled-up, gotta-get-back-to-work sleeves, are also missing.
The packaging is lacking, too, with requisite shots of past album covers and only a couple of onstage photos. There is a brief but touching tribute by Gallagher’s nephew, Daniel. He recalls as a youngster witnessing his uncle perform a magic trick, then growing up to compile this collection “to show an often overlooked quality of Rory’s magic, his songwriting.”
He accomplishes this ambitious goal, with all but one of the 24 songs from the 11 studio albums represented on the two-disc CD written by Gallagher. The lone exception is Leadbelly’s “Out On The Western Plain,” which thankfully was included and exhibits Gallagher’s adroit acoustic skills. His dynamic slide shows also get their due on numbers like the scintillating title track.
By only focusing on his solo career, though, this modest compilation leaves any ardent admirer feeling like a Catholic boy who sat through an entire Mass without getting to go to communion. And it’s merely a baptism for first-time listeners.
This may be preaching to the converted, but hopefully the congregation will keep spreading the gospel according to Gallagher. Crest of a Wave is truly a testament to his achievements, but after listening to the sermon, you’ll want to hear the rest of the Rory story.
See an edited video of Rory Gallagher performing “Walk On Hot Coals” on the Old Grey Whistle Test:
And another Old Grey Whistle Test clip of Gallagher on Leadbelly’s “Out On The Western Plain”: