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Music Review: Rory Gallagher – Defender, Fresh Evidence, BBC Sessions, and Wheels Within Wheels

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One of those unanswerable questions of rock history is—why didn’t the Irish master of the Stratocaster, Rory Gallagher, become a superstar? Even before his death on June 14, 1995 at the age of 47, the music world held him in very high regard indeed. Brian May attributes much of his style to Gallagher. Reportedly, Jimi Hendrix answered one interviewer in 1969 who asked him what it felt like to be the world’s greatest guitarist: “I dunno, ask Rory Gallagher.” When several former Yardbirds re-grouped in 1984 as the Box of Frogs, they brought Gallagher aboard, making him the direct musical heir to Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. In 2010, Gibson.com ranked Gallagher as #42 on their list of their Top 50 Guitarists of All Time. These are but a few of the accolades and tributes Gallagher earned for his work from the early 1970s until 1995.

Then again, Gallagher was far from alone in not getting major airplay during his lifetime. Indeed, he was among a very august company of performers who rose to prominence throughout the FM era, commanded respectable album sales, and built devoted fan bases without the break-out single that would have catapulted them up the charts. Perhaps the real unanswerable question about Gallagher is how this Irish-born-and-bred lover of Lonnie Donegan’s British Isle skiffle ended up sounding like he sprang up from the American south? True, many a U.K. singer and player learned their chops from the masters of Chess Records, but very, very few could be mistaken for having genuine Delta roots.

Take Defender, for example, one of four Gallagher discs coming from Eagle Rock that will complete the project of reissuing the full Gallagher catalogue. When it debuted on old-fashioned vinyl in 1987, Defender was the first release on Gallagher’s own label, Capo Records. Gallagher produced the disc and wrote all but one of the 12 tracks mostly featuring the power trio of Gallagher (vocals/guitars/harmonica), Gerry McAvoy (bass), and Brendan O’Neil (drums and percussion). In short order, listeners might be forgiven for thinking Gallagher was not only raised to shout rebel yells on the American home front, but that he sprouted from South Texas as a long-lost Winter brother, very close kin to Johnny and Edgar. Very strong nods to Johnny in particular are evident in “Continental Op,” a tribute to the mystery writer, Dashiell Hammet. Some of the electric tracks, like “Failsafe Day,” are more rock than blues, but others like “Doing Time” are opportunities for Gallagher to show his slide guitar virtuosity.

From time to time, Gallagher exhibits a sly lyrical twist, notably with “Smear Campaign,” his commentary on elections with lines like “This town is relling backwards like a drunk man on the streets.” But Gallagher clearly enjoys acoustic work as well, with “Seven Days” featuring piano runs from Lou Martin. Gallagher stays acoustic with the album’s showpiece, Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me To Talking.”  The trio is augmented by the harp of Mark Feldham and the barrel-house piano of Bob Andrews. In the main, however, lovers of blues/rock will want to crank up tunes like ”Kickback City” and “Loanshark Blues” and hear a primer of the genre.

Gallagher’s last studio album, 1990’s Fresh Evidence, showed Gallagher wanting to widen his sonic palate. While the core musicians were the same as on Defender, this time Gallagher not only played electric and acoustic guitars, but the dulcimer, electric sitar, and mandola. A number of guest musicians added flavors Gallagher wanted, as with Geraint Watkins on accordion for “Never Asked You For Nothin,’” where smoking Chicago blues meets Zydeco;  and, naturally, for “The King Of Zydeco,” a tribute to Cajun musician Clifton Chenier. Gallagher pays homage to two of his other influences in “Alexis,” an instrumental jam honoring the Father of British Blues, Alexis Korner, and “Empire State Express” written by Eddie “Son” House where Gallagher performs an acoustic solo.

Whatever the various settings, Gallagher’s guitar and vocals are firmly placed center stage. ”Middle Name” is an example of innovative guitar work, a pure example of what he could evoke even with the most basic of rhythm patterns. ”Ghost Blues” is a showcase for bottleneck guitar, and “Heaven’s Gate” is a powerful shuffle. For “The Loop,” Gallagher clearly had fun with a horn section and, on the other side of the spectrum, “Slummin’ Angel” is straight up garage rock of the old school. That Texas undercurrent returns in “Walkin’ Wounded” with nods to ZZ Top as Gallagher sings about wanting to return to the southern coast.

Four years after Gallagher’s death, his brother Donal executive produced the two-CD set, The BBC Sessions. Disc One is “In Concert,” a collection of performances featuring some very dynamic percussion from O’Neill, Rod De’Ath, and Ted McKenna, depending on the track. Gallagher had special affection for these sessions as he claimed when growing up, Saturday night broadcasts on the BBC allowed him to really judge performers—could they do live what their studio records implied? In Gallagher’s case, his live work often surpassed what his studio albums contained. “Calling Card,” for example, is simply a stunning eight-minute jam with varying tempos and tones. The same hot traditional blues continues in “What in the World,” “Jacknife Beat,” and the rest of the driving, building performances. “Garbage Man” and “Cruise on Out” stand out as evidence these bands could give Ten Years After and Mountain a run for the power guitar crown. According to Donal Gallagher, “Cruise on Out” was recorded at the now defunct Venue Club where “due to the intense heat from the audience coupled with the unstoppable energy on stage plus some over zealous lighting, Ted McKenna’s drum caught fire, giving the crowd an impromptu pyrotechnic display!”

Nothing so dramatic marked any track on Disc Two, “Studio” recordings, performed again with a rotating cast of supporting players. Again, the opening tracks are straight-up blues numbers like “Race the Breeze,” “Hands Off,” and “Feel So Bad.” The principal difference between these performances and those recorded in concert is length—many five minutes or less on the second disc. It’s not all pure blues–“Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” and the keyboard spiced “Daughter of the Everglades” are beautiful recalls of the music of ‘70s FM radio. “Crest of a Wave” is a change of pace selection, a low-key rock ballad. Likewise the jazz jumper “They Don’t Make Them Like You” stands out.  But it would be hard to get a more low-down, dirty torcher than “The Last Time” or get more reminiscent of Buddy Guy or B. B. King than “It Takes Time.” In the main, this is a set you’d expect to hear in a Chicago nightclub, not in a London studio. And that’s the power of the blues.

The last of these reissues, and the final posthumous collection, is Wheels Within Wheels, an assortment of acoustic tracks assembled by Donal Gallagher in 2003 to create the album Rory never got to make in his lifetime. It includes previously unreleased cuts, many from live performances from the 1970s. To say it offers a different side of Rory Gallagher is an understatement—it’s gentle and versatile and demonstrates Gallagher could be electrifying without being plugged into an amp.

Choosing standouts would be a matter of taste. “Flight to Paradise” and “Bratacha Dubha” are lovely Celtic-tinged instrumentals with double-tracked finger-picking. “She Moved Thro’ the Fair” should remind Page fans of his “White Summer” and “Black Mountain Side” strumming for the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin. From 1975, “Lonesome Highway” is folk/rock with interesting percussion support. Collaborations include “Deep Elm Blues” and “The Cuckoo” with Roland van Campenhout while jamming together at the Ghent Festival in the late 70s. One delight for Gallagher must have been “Goin’ To My Hometown” with skiffle king Donegan, one of the pivotal influences on the young Irish devotee. They really get down home on that one, as with “Blue Moon of Kentucky” with guitar, banjo, harmonica, and everything but a washtub for a good ole’ fashioned country jam.

So, with this variety of musical environments, what should a newcomer to the sounds of Rory Gallagher select for an introduction? Certainly, Defender and Fresh Evidence best represent what Gallagher is best known for. For my money, the BBC Sessions are the discs I’ll be playing most often, and that’s probably the case for most out-and-out blues junkies. Wheels Within Wheels might not be a typical Gallagher recording, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone who loves roots music and consummate musicianship wouldn’t enjoy this collection, particularly those who like their sounds on the gentle side. Without question, every guitar player seeking to deepen their craft should immerse themselves in these treasures, whether your thing is electric or acoustic. This is music that still lives and breathes, and we should be grateful that artists like Gallagher are getting this kind of loving attention, especially if you missed them the first time around.

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About Wesley Britton