“Mile High Denver” read the sticker on the plain brown wrapper of the jiffy mailing-bag. It contained a clear plasti-case holding a pale gray cassette with the name ‘Rory Gallagher’ typed neatly on its small white label. I jammed the cassette into the belly of my rickety, ancient mono-Panasonic—and listened transfixed to over 44 minutes of tight-lightning coming down as if sent from over ten miles high.
“Wait until you hear the record on a proper stereo,” enthuses Rory Gallagher one week later on long-distance telephone from Wichita, Kansas. Rory’s been crisscrossing the U.S.A. on a national road tour linked to the release of his dynamic new album, Against The Grain fhis first for Chrysalis Records). His telephone voice is soft and modest, the brogue of his native Cork tempered by years of travel abroad, suggesting more of the gentility of a museum curator than the raw-grit of one of the world’s outstanding bluesmen.
Against The Grain is Rory’s first studio effort in over two years, and it shows all the earmarks of determined conception. “You might say I went into the studio with a vengeance, he says. “I rehearsed the band (Rod’ de Ath, drums; Gerry McAvoy, bass; Lou Martin, keyboards) quite hard, because we wanted to go in with everything pared to the bone.”
Rory and his band deliver their material like a gang of Irish street-fighters: lean, tough and disciplined. “I wrote the tunes during the Winter and Spring of ‘75, with the exception of ‘At The Bottom ’ which is an old one from back in 1970.” And was he feeling a bit down when he wrote that ironic number? “No, not really,” maintains Rory, “it’s supposed to communicate the feeling of walking around on the ocean floor—a bit of a simile, as they say.”
Rory reaches out into the ocean for a superb bit of imagery in “Lost At Sea,” a brilliant celebration of hard-won love with soaring, wailing guitar patterns suggesting the free flight of swirling gulls against a limitless expanse of water and sky. And just how does he pull those lines from the battered, peeling render which put him £100 in debt back in 1963? Rory muses on a question essentially impossible to answer. “Well, you’ve just got to push the strings hard, and try using the fingernail as well as the plectrum to get that extra edge.”
“Lost At Sea” ends on a crying peak and crosses into a macho-savage version of Bo Carter’s “All Around Man” on a harmonic bridge of falsetto scat and starkly isolated Fender solo. “I saw Gary Davis do the number in a hotel dining room in Belgium—I remember it quite well because we had hot whiskey for breakfast. I re-wrote the words for the version I do on Against The Grain, because Bo’s original was slightly pornographic.”
Admiration for black American blues greats like Lemon Jefferson and Huddie Ledbetter has been the cornerstone of Rory’s career, a career which began with Gene Autry tunes at the age of ninematured into a two-year stint with an Irish showband named Fontana, and garnered its first recognition with Taste in the late sixties.
“I’ve been a Leadbelly fan since I was quite young—I used to hear Lonnie Donnegan do his tunes.” Rory interprets a haunting, evocative version of Leadbelly’s “Out On The Western Plain” for one of the album’s most memorable tracks. “This song has always been in my head since childhood,” says Rory. “It’s a bit of an unusual song for Leadbelly to do, since it’s a cowboy song and he was a black man. But historians have discovered that there were black cowboys, so I guess it’s neither here nor there. Anyway, in working out an approach to the tune one night, I started fooling around with a drone tuning, a bagpipe tuning. It produces strange chords—they’re neither major nor minor—but every chord comes out waiting for another to fall on top of it.”
In Ulysses, James Joyce compared the state of Irish art to “the cracked looking glass of a servant.” The phrase suggests the peculiarly filtered perspective through which Irish artists respond to the world, and the island nation’s historical place in the shadow of Mother England. Rory’s treatment of “Out On The Western Plain” derives its uniqueness from a mythic view at twice-remove from the romantic ideal of the American west.
Although he is ambivalent about comparisons to the Clapton-Beck-Hendrix killer guitar-wave of the late sixties, the pure energy of Against The Grain surely represents another link in the chain of power-guitar evolution. “Of course, these were the dominant guitarists of their time, and I listened to all of them with respect. But my own frame of reference goes back to people like Gene Vincent’s guitar player. There were many fine English guitarlists, like Mickey Green, who never achieved the dominance of Clapton with the masses, but who were excelent in their own right. I really can’t analyze my own style—can’t say I woke up one morning and tah-dah, I had it. It’s more of a continual growth. You’ve only got to listen to the old blues masters to realize how long it really takes to achieve greatness.”
Rory’s favorite tune on the new album is the thundering centerpiece, “Souped-Up Ford.” “I had that one in my head for a long while and really wanted to get it out. I don’t like songs that are just ‘he and she and you an me’ and all that. I wanted to get right into that sense of movement and machine-power going off into the horizon.
Rory sets-up “Souped-Up Ford” with wistful, moving number, “Ain’t Too Good” which builds into a tearing, flying climax. "That’s more of a soulful blues,” he says, “but I think there’s a sense of tension in the tune that sustains it.”
Rory’s vocals on tracks like “Cross Me Off Your List ” are at times reminiscent of early Jack Bruce. ‘He’s a Celt like myself, which may account for some similarity. I think my vocals have finally come along to the point where I’m pleased with them. In the past I’d record the guitar and vocals simultaneously live, but for this album I recorded the vocals separately over the guitars.”
Does he have any theory on approaching the blues mold, such as a correlative between suffering dues and conviction in performance. “I’d say you’ve got to maintain a sense of humorous perspective on any situation—like Leadbelly did. Perhaps at times I reach subconsciously into my past, but I think the challenge is more in stepping out into another voice and giving yourself over entirely to it.”
Rory hopes to take his band back into the studio within a few months, and adds that he might well cut his next disc in the U.S.A. Does he have a tentative title for it?
don’t know for
sure if I’ll be able to write a song around it, but I saw a sign
in a Louisville
store window that really stuck in my mind.” What did it say?
“SHOTGUNS, GUITARS AND LUGGAGE”, answers Rory with a laugh.
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