Happy Bluesman Records #3: Rory Gallagher – Irish Tour ’74
There are very few albums that capture the essence of a musician as accurately as Rory Gallagher – Irish Tour ’74. It is an album that brilliantly highlights the musical qualities for which Gallagher is renowned; the blistering guitar playing, raw vocals and relentless onstage energy. But more than that, the album stands as a testament to the type of man that Gallagher was. A man who put music before anything else. A man who was dedicated to his craft and to the blues.
The unique circumstances that surround the Irish Tour ’74 album are noteworthy. Combined with the sheer level of musicianship that the album illustrates, I think it is one of the most exceptional blues albums ever made.
Here is the history behind the album, the standout tracks and the reasons you need to add Irish Tour ’74 to your blues record collection:
Rory Gallagher – Irish Tour ’74
Irish Tour ’74 was Rory Gallagher’s sixth album. It is all recorded live and is a compilation of performances of Gallagher’s tour in Ireland in early 1974. It features performances from 3 different venues: Belfast Ulster Hall, Cork City Hall and Dublin Carlton Cinema. Performing live was Gallagher’s passion. He struggled to express himself properly in the studio, and so put very little emphasis on the recording process. As Lou Martin, his keyboardist at the time stated:
The studio was not the best environment for recording. He wasn’t at his most comfortable or happiest…With Rory, if he didn’t have somebody to look at then he couldn’t feed off the energy. That’s why Irish Tour is such a good bloody album because it was recorded live, he got the crowd there with him singing along and sort of like urging him along… without the presence of an audience the recording process for Rory was a bit of a strain
In addition to the album, many of the concerts were recorded. Tony Palmer – a film maker who had produced famous documentaries for Cream and The Beatles – was interested in the unique circumstances of the tour. He originally planned to use the footage for a TV special. But he later thought that it was so good that he released it as a full length film; ‘Rory Gallagher – Irish Tour 1974’.
Both the album and the film proved to be very popular. The album went on to sell over 2 million copies, and in 2014, a 40th anniversary box set commemorating the album was released. This comprised 7CDs, as well as a DVD of the film.
A large part of the album’s popularity is down to the quality of the music. The performances are brilliant, and perfectly capture Gallagher’s powerful mix of blues, rock and more traditional forms of folk and Irish music. But more than this, the album gained huge popularity because of its historical significance.
Rory Gallagher and his band toured Ireland during one of the tumultuous periods of ‘The Troubles.’ In the year prior to Gallagher playing in Belfast in 1974, over 250 people had been killed in the province. This had a profound effect on the music scene in the city. As Gerry McAvoy, Gallagher’s longtime bassist observed:
Anytime we hit the stage after 1971 you were aware that, apart from the odd cabaret turn at the Abercorn, none of the bigger bands would come back to play Belfast, it was starved of music
The Abercorn – the bar and restaurant to which McAvoy refers here – had been bombed 2 years earlier, in 1972. The explosion killed 2 young women and injured over 130 people. Gallagher and his band had played in Belfast in that year too. When they did, their performance on New Year’s Day came just 24 hours after 10 bombs exploded all across the city. One of the venues in which they played was on the notorious ‘bomb alley’ and the Europa hotel where they typically stayed, went on to earn the dubious record of being the most bombed hotel in the world.
The threat was real, and this was particularly the case in 1974, only a year before what turned out to be ‘0ne of the bloodiest years of the conflict’. This was to be the year of the infamous ‘Miami Showband Massacre’; the murder of 3 members of the Miami Showband – one of the most popular show bands in Ireland at the time – on their way home from a gig.
Filming The Irish Tour ’74
Given this context, it is not surprising that Gallagher was regularly dissuaded from playing in Belfast. Gallagher’s brother Donal and his promoter Jim Aiken suggested organising a series of gigs just south of the Border. The logic was that those from the North who really wanted to see Gallagher play, could travel south. ‘Rory flatly refused’, recalled Donal. ‘(He said) it wouldn’t be fair. As well as the ticket prices, the kids would also have to pay a bus or train fare’.
So it was decided. And it was at this stage that Donal contacted documentary maker Tony Palmer. Donal was acutely aware of the unusual circumstances of the tour and he wanted it to be documented. Shortly after, Palmer and Rory Gallagher met to discuss the project further. Palmer recalls that Gallagher was always at pains to point out he didn’t want to make a political film. He just felt strongly that he should be allowed to play in Northern Ireland and believed that by travelling to play there, his message would be ‘self-evident’. As Palmer later recalled:
‘That was the nearest to a political statement he got. By that tour he was trying to say something politically…But he didn’t want to make it propaganda. It was a film about him as phenomenal musician, contrasting the bravado and bravura of him on stage with the completely self-deprecating guy who you’d pass in the street and not think twice about. He was so diffident personally and incredibly self-effacing about his incredible skills. He didn’t think there was anything unusual about it, he just thought ‘that’s what I do’.
This contrast is what the Irish Tour ’74 film captures perfectly. It portrays an immensely skilled musician who is making a fairly significant political statement through his music, yet doing so in a very understated way.
Stand Out Songs
The 40th Anniversary Edition of the Irish Tour ’74 features over 50 songs. These are not all different – many of them are the same song but recorded in a different venue. Of all of the performances, those captured at Cork City Hall are my favourite. The sound quality of these recordings is better, and I think that Gallagher’s playing is exceptional. Though having said that, the performances are all interesting in different ways. And after much deliberation, here are my 3 stand out tracks from the album:
This is my favourite song from the album. It is a masterful performance from Gallagher and one that highlights his brilliant sense of timing and melody, as well as his complete control over the guitar. The opening solo, and the extended section where Gallagher uses his volume controls to totally alter the sound of his guitar and the feeling of the song are particularly powerful.
Rory Gallagher was such a brilliant guitarist, that it is easy to forget how skilled he was at playing slide guitar. This 9 minute long version of ‘Who’s That Coming’ features some brilliant slide work from Gallagher, and illustrates the breadth and depth of his guitar playing skills.
Gallagher often played Bullfrog Blues as the last song in his set. And given the historical context of this gig, the Ulster Hall rendition of the song is particularly stirring. The energy from both the band and the audience is palpable. It is a fitting end to a significant gig in the history of blues and rock music.
Rory Gallagher was not an archetypal guitar God. Despite his immense talent, he is rarely spoken about in terms similar to guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Eric Clapton. For a long time I didn’t understand how this was possible. More recently though, it dawned on me. Gallagher had little interest in fame or the rock star lifestyle. He never compromised his artistic vision and was stubborn when it came to decision making. For Gallagher, it was all about the music.
Irish Tour ’74 is the musical embodiment of this attitude. Gallagher wasn’t interested in politics, nor did he think it strange to play in a city divided by chaos and violence. He just wanted to play his music and give his fans the opportunity to hear his music too.
The impact of this album goes far beyond music. I think in the end, its legacy is best summed up by the late Roy Hollingworth, who in 1972 wrote passionately about a gig that Gallagher played in Belfast on New Year’s Day that same year:
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.
The performances of Rory Gallagher and his band in 1974 had a similar impact on the audiences that were there to witness them. Gallagher spread the good vibes of the blues. And for that reason alone, this record should be in your collection.