Jimi Hendrix was once asked how it felt to be the world’s greatest guitarist. He replied: ‘I don’t know, go ask Rory Gallagher’.”
Belfast, New Year’s Day 1972. Forty five years ago.
There hadn’t been a rock concert played in Belfast for six months. Bands had stopped playing dates in Belfast.
In July 1971 3,000 troops imposed a curfew on the nationalist Lower Falls area of Belfast, firing more than 1,500 rounds of ammunition in gun battles with the IRA and killing four people.
Bloody Sunday, when the British army shot dead thirteen civilians, was less than a month away. 1972 would be the height of the troubles.
And on the first day of that momentous year Irishman Rory Gallagher, born in Ballyshannon, was due to play a New Year’s Day concert in front of 2,000 people.
Imagine that. The first public music event for over six months in a city of 300,000.
You might not blame touring musicians for not wanting to come over and play. The night before – New Year’s Eve 1970 – had seen Belfast’s biggest ever bomb blast, one of ten explosions that night. At 11.50pm Gallagher had been tuning his guitar at Belfast University ball, ready to play a set for the students, when a huge explosion rattled the windows from half a mile away.
Gallagher just grinned, and carried on regardless, but it couldn’t have been a great feeling to know outside the building was mayhem.
Then came the New Year’s Day gig at the famous Ulster Hall.
Word had come that the IRA would “leave it alone”, but you could never be entirely certain.
As Gallagher stepped onstage, the crowd roared. An emotional release, best described by this amazing piece by Roy Hollingworth of Melody Maker who wrote
“I’ve never seen anything quite so wonderful, so stirring, so uplifting, so joyous as when Gallagher and the band walked on stage. The whole place erupted, they all stood and they cheered and they yelled, and screamed, and they put their arms up, and they embraced. Then as one unit they put their arms into the air and gave peace signs. Without being silly, or overemotional, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life. It all meant something, it meant more than just rock n’ roll, it was something bigger, something more valid than just that.”
It sounds amazing. We can only imagine how the people of Belfast must have felt when a guitarist of Rory Gallagher’s stature came to play for them at such a difficult time. They had not been forgotten.
What stands out in this story is Gallagher’s attitude. Bravery, even. As he simply put it,
“Gigs are A, B, and C on a sheet, Belfast may be a B, I saw no reason to think it any different than from A or C….”
Gallagher was an incredible guitarist, as evidenced by albums such as “Deuce”, “Against The Grain” and “Tattoo”. But most of all, when playing live he had raw, fresh spontaneity, and you can hear a bit of that mesmerising style in his “Irish Tour ’74” album. It was no coincidence that The Rolling Stones wanted him to replace Mick Taylor, that his first band, Taste, supported Cream at their Royal Albert Hall farewell concerts or that Gallagher himself played with Muddy Waters on the latter’s “London Sessions” album.
My reason for telling this tale is twofold. Firstly, it has been 45 years, and it seems a good time to mark the occasion and talk about a proper blues legend.
Second, there’s a new Rory Gallagher tribute album coming out next week, recorded by American blues guitarist and Every Record Tells A Story favourite Michael Katon. In the next post, I’ll be interviewing Michael, and finding out how the album came about, whilst delving a little into the life of a bluesman who comes from the town of Hell, Michigan.
In the meantime, here’s a playlist of some Rory Gallagher tracks for your enjoyment….