Thursday, May 19, 2016

Fidelity Artist Showcase: Rory Gallagher

During an interview, Jimi Hendrix was asked by a journalist "How does it feel to be the best guitarist in the world? " He answered : "I don't know. Ask Rory Gallagher."

One day about 15 years ago I was making my usual rounds through Manifest Records in Charlotte, NC. I would go through every CD isle of every genre in the store, and low and behold I came across an album cover that captured my imagination. (above) I thought to myself that if the album sounded anything like the cover looked, that I was in for a treat. Being an avid lover of blues infused rock, this looked to be right up my alley. I read the packaging and learned that this was a remastered released of 'Irish Tour 74'. I had never heard of Rory Gallagher before, but I decided to take the chance based one heck of cool album cover. Who was this Irishman?

I went outside and slid the CD into my truck CD player and what I heard blast out the speakers forever changed my view of blues infused rock. Yes, I had listened to and was very familiar with Zeppelin, The Who, The Stones, Deep Purple, Buddy Guy, Clapton, Stevie Ray, and Hendrix. If you could name them, there was a good chance I had the CD in my collection. But this, this was something beyond what I had heard in any other guitar player before. The sheer energy that came out of the speakers left me sitting in the parking lot with volume cranked as I heard the fiery notes of 'Cradle Rock' pierce the air around me. It was like a fire had come down and left me lit up with excitement. I listened to the entire album in one sitting and came back the next day to pick up the remastered version of 'Live In Europe'. From that day on each pay day I went over and picked up another until I owned the whole Rory Gallagher collection.

Live In Europe opens with a rocking version of 'Messin With The Kid', following with a killer version of Laundromat. His guitar solos were not based purely on blues pentatonic scales. Rory was also influenced by Jazz and country, and his crafty solos proved he was in a league above most of the more popular players like Keith Richards and Jimmy Page. In fact, Rory was also one of the best slide players around and many have said he was on par with Duane Allman. I am generally not one to rank guitar players, since everyone has their own taste and their own favorite artists. I have many "favorites", but for me Rory is in his own class in the blues/rock genre, kind of like Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn are. They have a unique tone and an intensity that is unique unto them. In my opinion, they are the few who will forever be 'Etched in Blue.'

Rory was from Ireland and was more popular in Europe than he was in the US. He also never really broke into popular radio in the US, yet he sold over 30 million records over his career. Rory stuck to his roots and never was too concerned about being popular, although he at times indicated that he wanted to reach a wider audience, but never at the expense of his artistic integrity. He was not just a phenomenal player, he was also a fabulous songwriter. His songwriting began with his first recorded group, Taste in 1966. Just recently a remastered live CD of their Isle of Wight concert has been released and the audio is fantastic. They also released a companion live DVD of it as well, and are both a great add to any collection. Rory then went on his own after Taste disbanded and he released his first self titled album in 1971. He would release 14 albums over the next 24 years until his untimely death in 1995. One of the things I love about Rory's songs is that they are not boring or mundane. With many artists, given enough time, their songs start to sound the same. Not so with Rory. How he was able to remain so "traditional" for lack of a better term, and yet be so creative is elusive to me. Not many artists can claim such versatile song writing without completely changing genres.

How did Rory get that stinging energetic sound? Rory was known for playing his 61' Stratocaster and that was his go to instrument of choice. In fact, Rory once said, "I’ve had to take the neck off occasionally and dry it out – it was getting damp with doing so many gigs and I started to have tuning problems.  The pots have gone and the pick-ups have been rewound and things like that.  The tremolo arm is broken - but other than that it’s still in one piece!" His first choice was a red Strat, but the story goes that a sunburst came in instead. A funny story was that when Rory visited the Fender factory, that they saw his beat up 61' Strat and gave him a new white one to use, which he said he did use on some studio recordings. The 61' however was always his favorite. He did not make a lot of use with the tremolo arm on his Strats and actually had it blocked off in his 61'. The sound was in his fingers. You would also see him with a 66' telecaster which he would use for his slide playing on tunes like "Who's That Comin'. Some of his many other guitars included a 63' red Gretsch Corvette, a 68' Martin D35, and a 32' National Resonator. Rory also played the mandolin very well. For a list of Rory's guitars with pictures, visit the official Rory website.

Rory's amplifier selection varied throughout his career using Vox, Fender, Marshall, Ampeg, Stramp and others. Personally my favorite was his earlier sound using his Vox AC30, but he got increidble tone out of his Fender and Marshall rigs as well.. He preferred combo amps including a 56 Fender Twin, and sometimes linked them together. Rory was not overly dependent on effects pedals. In fact, he did not want anyone to be able to put their finger on the effects he used preferring a pure sound of the instrument and the amp. He once said, "I’m not an effects wizard like Dave Gilmour -a player who uses effects superbly. For me the perfect compliment is “It doesn’t sound as if you’re using anything. It sounds as if you’re plugging straight into the amp”, That’s when I know I’m using the effects correctly." He used a Range Master box for a boost in treble, a Boss BD-1 driver for fuzz and distortion, a Boss OC-2 Octave which he said was one of his favorites, a Boss BF-2 Flanger, a Boss VB-1 Vibrato, and his unique HAWK Booster which gave him the overdrive to the amp allowing his tone to be controlled from his volume knob and pickup selection. Flynn Amps now makes a clone of it. I have never seen any guitar player master their tone knob, volume knob and pickup selector the way Rory did. Watch any live video of him and watch his right hand work the guitar. You can hear his technique clearly for example in live tunes such as 'A Million Miles Away' and 'Walk on Hot Coals.' Rory's influences ranged from blues artists like Leadbelly, to early rockabilly players like Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. He also listened to a lot of Irish folk music and other roots music.

In my opinion Rory's acoustic work is under appreciated. Rory often had a solo acoustic set during his shows. One of my favorite acoustic tunes is 'Out on the Western Plain.' His slide technique also shines on his acoustic tunes. On the video below Rory talks a bit about his National Resonator guitar, which fit his music so well. Everything Rory did on the guitar jumped out at you, and the Resonator fit the bill well on his acoustic set. He used an aspirin bottle for his slide.

It is my feeling that many artists today have the lost the art of putting on a good show for the audience. For Rory it came naturally. There was nothing forced in his live shows. It was pure energy merged with his guitar that came across to the audience in an incendiary manner. Rory could enjoy the fill of a keyboard player in a quartet or the openness of a trio where he had freedom to work his magic. There are several live versions of both band formats available on CD.

In summary, Rory's music was a vehicle that Rory used to communicate himself in a very personal manner. If I had to use one word to describe Rory and his music it would be, 'genuine'. You can hear a unique presence in each note that he played and the way he played it. Each choice of the tone knob, volume knob or pickup was a deliberate sound chosen for that time and place. If you have the opportunity to pick up the box set of 'Irish Tour 74', you can hear how Rory chose his notes for each particular audience. I have not said much on Rory's voice, but if fit his music well. Rory was happy to live the life he lived, playing for his audience in the manner he chose to. He did not like the way the music industry was heading with music companies artificially creating personas to sell music. Lucky for us we have a nice catalog of music to choose from, including some posthumous releases by his brother Donal. With Rory, you get Rory, nothing more, nothing less, and that's a good thing in a world of sellouts and posers looking to make a fast buck. If I were you, I would get my hands on anything with his name on it. There was only one Rory Gallagher, and his music will always be on my 'A' play list. 

Walk on Hot Coals!

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