America had Tommy Bolin. Ireland had Rory Gallagher. And Rory outlasted Tommy by about 20 years. We still lost him, however, as Ireland’s greatest guitar player died in 1995.
I first heard of Gallagher back in 1984 when several ex-Yardbirds formed a new band called Box of Frogs, so called because the additional players kept jumping in “like frogs.” The first album featured Jeff Beck. The second had guest appearances by Jimmy Page and Steve Hackett. But their de facto lead guitarist was Rory Gallagher.
At the time, Akron’s WONE had an eclectic playlist that included obscure bands. Rory Gallagher would turn up on the radio from time to time. But it wasn’t until the 2000’s that I got a full introduction to his music.
Early in the last decade, a writer named E. David Moulton liked my original review of his novel Prodigal Child. In gratitude, he sent me a copy of Gallagher’s 1975 album Against the Grain. There were some really great nuggets on this one. “Cross Me Off Your List” was one that really stuck with me, along with “All Around Man,” which is one of his classics. The song that really cemented Gallagher’s music for me was the acoustic solo “Out on the Western Plain.”
A couple of years later, Ken Bruen gave me two albums, Irish Tour ’74 and Big Guns. It’s the latter I listen to the most. It includes some of Against the Grain‘s strongest moments, but the collection showcases the power of Gallagher’s voice, fretwork, and songwriting. The two that really grabbed me were “Tattoo’d Lady” (which sounds even better live) and “Kickback City.” The Wire was on the air when I first heard the second song. Gallagher’s Irish background meshed nicely with that show’s working class vibe, as well as my own Steel Belt childhood.
The Yardbirds weren’t the only band interested in Gallagher. In 1975, David Coverdale had a shortlist of two guitarists he wanted to replace Ritchie Blackmore. The first was Jeff Beck, but Beck had been on every band’s wish list going back to Pink Floyd in its Syd Barrett crisis in 1969. The second was Rory Gallagher. Purple might have lasted a few more years after Blackmore’s original exit had they landed Gallagher. His impact on the band could very well have been similar to Steve Morse’s almost twenty years later.
But Gallagher wanted to be his own man. He stuck with playing solo and insisting on touring Ireland once a year throughout his career. Despite this, he did manage to eclipse fellow blues guitarist Eric Clapton a few times in the 1970’s. Alas, a liver transplant in 1995 did not take, and Gallagher passed away.
Too bad, because, like Tommy Bolin, he had a unique playing style that bucked the prevalent sound of the time. He was an unrepentant individualist when rock was growing increasingly conformist.