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It has been 22 years since the legendary Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher passed away at the age of only 47. He is still adored by an army of loyal fans and held in high regard by musicians ranging from The Edge of U2 and Eric Clapton. Jimi Hendrix once said that Rory was the best guitarist he had ever heard. For some, such praise and adoration might send their egos through the stratosphere, though, by all accounts, Rory was a shy and retiring person, utterly devoted to his craft. But Rory’s legacy is such that he has a memorial statue in his hometown of Cork, a plaque marking his birth at the Rock Hospital in Ballyshannon, not to mention annual festivals in his name, held in both towns. And many of his fans who picked up the guitar have undertaken a myriad of dangerous methods to get their Fender Stratocasters looking exactly like Rory’s famously worn instrument.
I first came across Rory around about the age of 14, when I was music daft and had been playing guitar for just under a year. He was shown on TOTP 2 one Saturday on the BBC, a show I watched often to catch the older acts I read about in books and magazines on the guitar. Rory is perhaps the only one I saw who sticks in my head. I think it was to mark the first anniversary of his passing. I was certainly taken by his energy and ever so slightly boggle eyed at his ability on the guitar, a level I could only dream of. However, it is only in the last year that I’ve seriously began listening to him, thanks to my friend Ann Massey O’Regan, who is a massive Rory fan. And I’ve fallen in love, hook, line and sinker, for his music. Even my pre-schooler daughter is a Rory fan. When I saw it was the anniversary of his passing, I remembered I had the film of his 1974 Irish tour, but had yet to watch it, so what better way was there for me to mark the occasion.
The Irish Tour ‘74, which shares its name with a fantastic live album, is a film following Rory on his tour of Northern Ireland early in 1974, directed by Tony Palmer. For a music fan, it has to be a must-see, not only for the captivating live performances by Rory and his band, but for the insight it gives behind the scenes and how Rory seemingly takes the success in his stride. Footage of him walking about the streets sees him being stopped regularly for an autograph by fans. The lack of superstar ego is marked. He is just a man going about his business, dropping by an instrument shop to check out its guitars, or enjoying a walk about. He comes across as a warm person, who says that while he has no problem enjoying being a successful musician, there is no need to get caught up in "the cloak and dagger" nature of showbiz, living a secluded life.
One thing that has helped to seal Rory’s legacy is the fact that he was one of the few acts to play Belfast in the early 1970s, the height of The Troubles. Performers often gave it the bum’s rush thanks to safety fears, but Rory always ensured he played Belfast. As he points out, it was an important place to the start of his career, from being in a showband in the 1960s, and he always got a good crowd. The film indeed shows the crowd to be keen, dancing about utterly lost in the music, chanting Rory’s name and watching him perform transfixed. It’s certainly the case when he plays “Going To My Home Town,” where the crowd goes crazy. It’s probably one the highlights of the film. The film of Rory and his band walking about Belfast, to a backdrop of ruined buildings and heavily armed soldiers driving about the street certainly hammers home the starkness of the situation.
It is, however, the live performances that make this film, and they are a valuable record of just how good Rory was. If Tony Palmer and his crew hadn’t decided to make this, we no doubt would have missed out. When watching videos of other musicians, say Metallica, playing live, it somehow feels empty, like they are phoning it in. There is a bit of ego, but something is lacking. There is little heart in it, or something seems to have gone. Not what you get watching Rory Gallagher. He utterly loses himself in the moment, throwing himself into the music and absorbing the energy of the crowd. He does say that the musicians get emotionally involved in the show, for him the most important one or two hours of the day, and it can take time to come down from that. Watching him play, it’s not a surprise. He puts his all into it. Even though I was watching over forty years later, it felt like I was there in the moment, Rory having a very hypnotic pull. I doubt I’ve even been to gigs as good as what his seemed to be.