Ghost Blues: The Story of Rory Gallagher and The Beat Club Sessions

January 01, 1970

(Eagle Rock; 179 minutes)




Rory Gallagher’s story is the sort that makes me wish I’d held
onto those superlatives squandered on several other reviews. No other European
blues maker has managed the precarious mix of heat, charisma, and decency that
came naturally to the perennially tousled multi-instrumentalist from Cork (born
in Ballyshannon), who made his name with a passionately mangled Fender Strat. So
many listeners felt similarly that Gallagher leapt over Eric Clapton, Jimmy
Page, John McLaughlin(!), and Pete Townsend for Melody Maker‘s “best guitarist of the year ” spot in 1973.


The ramshackle fire of Van Morrison has been something of a
psychic cousin. But Gallagher’s need to be a pure blues channel bristled with a
fervor that would typically be characterized as religious or political. Per Bob
Geldof in Ghost Blues: The Story of Rory
(Eagle Rock), “Rory
always struck me as a priest with long hair – you know, that quiet sort of Cork thing. And he
could’ve been in a seminary… except his chalice was his guitar and his prayers
were the blues.” Call this a spoiler or a warning, but when the film got to Gallagher’s
illness, and death (in 1995, from post-liver transplant complications), I cried
– at the sadness of his demise, at realizing a world without his presence, and at
the homages erected in his honor. It’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t
respond to the faces of  Rory’s brother
Donal, The Edge, and the Mayor of Dublin at the 2006 unveiling of a diminutive bronze
Stratocaster at Meeting House
Square. The ceremony brims with the love – and
sense of wonder — Gallagher elicited, from all accounts, from just about
everyone who knew him.


Gallagher first burst into my consciousness in the mid
-‘70s. Full of startling kinetics, the piece of dynamite, which he called “Walk
on Hot Coals,” stunned with much more than sound: If any white man could make you
believe he knew something about walking on hot coals, this was the one. As with
several U.K. players, including Fleetwood Mac and Savoy Brown, he wove the
essence of the blues with his own narratives. Especially with breakout trio
Taste, Gallagher combined blues with jazz, rock, and Irish folk. In his solo
work – the bulk of his career – the bigger emphasis on pure blues was colored
by idiosyncratic rhythms that seem to have hybridized from immersion in Irish
folk, skiffle, rock, and Django Reinhardt. Another GB commentator says Gallagher
created his own genre, “Irish blues.”


Ghost Blues peppers
biography and performance footage with the observations and recollections of
family, band mates, and the bevy of musicians inspired by Gallagher. Johnny
Marr is typically enthusiastic: “I once saw him change a string without
stopping the song. Just for that alone there should be a monument to him.”
Cameron Crowe shares his experiences of touring and drinking with Rory, who was
so self-effacing that he feared audiences wouldn’t welcome him once his health
and appearance were on a downward spiral. In the second disc, The Beat Club Sessions, Gallagher thanks
the audience sincerely, without any sense of “showmanship,” every time he


Several commentators mention Gallagher’s role in opening a
door for Irish rockers.  Fantastic – but
we understand more about the emotion he inspired in his countrymen when GB gets into his refusal to cancel tours
through areas particularly wracked by the Civil War. One of the film’s most
expressive talking heads, Hot Press editor Niall Stokes explains, “He was the ultimate hero there. And he did cross
that sectarian divide that was such a phenomenon in Northern Ireland. In the
context of the most intense conflict, people from both sides of the divide came
to see Rory at those great gigs at the Ulster hall… and it’s a reflection of
the real connection that he made with people at a grassroots level, where the
ordinary people felt connected to something magic and something brilliant.” Bassist
Gerry McAvoy: remembers “…the first concert, the first night. It would’ve been
Christmas, ’71 or ’72. We did this show, and there was bombs going off – about
six bombs went off around the city centre the night of the concert.”


Rory’s take on the situation characteristically dodges any
posture that could invite idolatry; shifting the focus: “There’s always a great
audience in Ulster – it’s a pity almost no one else goes to play there.”


It’s no surprise when this long-awaited, first
fully-authorized documentary consistently absorbs with riveting footage, the
kind of story “you can’t make up,” and the anecdotes of folks bursting to share


Those keen for more concise sonic gold will find the bonus The Beat Club Sessions zooming in on
Gallagher at an elated, vigorous peak (two sets, from’71 and ’72, in Bremen, Germany).
He’s bolstered by a rhythm section (McAvoy/bass; Wilgar Campbell/drums) remarkably
in sync with his nuances. No wonder Blind Faith had Rory (with Taste) join its
sole American tour: the boy blisters from start to finish. “Hands Up” is full
of leonine flare (Gallagher sang like Clapton, with more backbone and roar).
“In Your Town” has an intensity not too far from The Sonics’ “Have Love, Will
Travel” – the backbeat’s more upbeat, and the tone may be cleaner, but the
floor’s still covered with cinders. Pulse-quickeners are tempered by the romantic
lyricism of “Just The Smile,” and the restrained momentum of acoustic picking on
Blind Boy Fuller’s “Pistol Slapper Blues.” Other favorites include the hummable
original, “I Don’t Know Where I’m Going” (which could have been one of the
singles Gallagher refused to make despite music industry pressure). Chills may
be induced by the casual vibrato with which he slashes into Junior Wells’
“Messin’ with the Kid.”


Slide wizardry, tones and tricks that could make Jimi Hendrix
look up from his dinner are all here. But the ultimate draw is the joy Rory
took in performing. His guitars were just appendages. His voice was just a mouthpiece
for a soul full of passions that were, in his own words, “in me all the time,
and not just something I turn on.”


The Beat Club Sessions is also available on audio CD.


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