Review: Rory Gallagher Blues (3CD Deluxe Edition) (UMC – Chess 2019) – CD1 – Electric Blues
In May of 2019 Rory Gallagher’s estate released “Blues” (the title as unpretentious as Rory and his music). Available in two formats: a fifteen-track single CD and 2LP vinyl set and a thirty-six track 3CD Deluxe Edition.
With performances ranging from 1971 to 1989, and ninety percent of the material previously unreleased in any format, the collection is a must have for Gallagher fans.
And make no mistake, this is a fan’s set; the numbers are not sequenced chronologically to chart Gallagher’s “growth”; rather, the tracks are mixed and matched across decades in order to enhance the listener’s enjoyment.
The Deluxe Edition’s three CDs do sort the recordings into groups with Disc 1: Electric, Disc 2: Acoustic and Disc 3: Live, but other than that, the music flows freely across time; as Gallagher’s music can honestly be defined as “timeless” this only seems appropriate.
All three formats begin with the same four numbers, opening with a ramshackle take on Sonny Boy Williamson II’s ‘Don’t Start Me to Talking’ recorded during the sessions for the “Jinx” LP in 1982.
Backed by Gerry McAvoy on bass, Brendan O’Neil on drums and Bob Andrews on piano, Rory takes the lead vocal, and plays guitar and harmonica.
Five years later Gallagher tried it again, bringing in Mark Feltham on harmonica and everything fell into place, with the new recording released on 1987’s “Defender”.
Similarly, track two is a full band take of Lightning Slim’s ‘Nothin’ But the Devil’, cut in 1975 for possible inclusion on “Against the Grain”. As with the first number, the arrangement detracts from the number’s humor. Rory’s solo take on the song released on ‘Jinx’ is far more successful in my opinion.
‘Tore Down’ is an unreleased track from 1973’s ‘Blueprint’. A live favorite of Gallagher’s, he never released a studio version. For many of his contemporaries, guitarists such as Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Stan Webb to name just a few, Freddie King was a chief inspiration and they covered his numbers almost as a challenge.
While showing no disrespect, Rory reimagines the number completely, turning it into something wholly his own.
‘Off the Handle’ had been released on 1979’s “Top Priority” and the version here comes from a 1986 BBC session. The years and the setting make a big difference. The tempo has been slowed, the low boil bringing the sense of menace to fore; the removal of the studio sheen bringing an immediacy lacking in the earlier version.
Note: the liner notes list Gallagher as playing harmonica on the track and he does not.
One of the highlights of this disc, ‘I Could Have Had Religion’ was recorded for the Cleveland radio station WNCR-FM in at the end of their 1972 American tour. Lou Martin comes out from behind the piano to join on rhythm guitar as Gerry McAvoy and Rod de’Ath lay the foundation for this set standard.
The number seems to be built on the opening stanza of the Junior Wells number of the same name, (but not the arrangement, with Wells setting it to the rhythms of Muddy Water’s ‘Rolling Stone’ / ‘Catfish Blues’) before veering off into a more tormented Son House vein.
Despite the regret expressed in the lyrics and the heaviness of the arrangement, Gallagher’s slide and harmonica playing cannot help but bring a smile to the listener’s face. A wonderful performance.
Note: this performance is not included on the single CD or vinyl set.
This is followed by two more concert favorites; first up is a studio recording Tony Joe White’s ‘As the Crow Flies’, from 1973’s “Tattoo”. I don’t know why they didn’t pursue this one further as the interplay between Gallagher’s slide and Lou Martin’s piano is thrilling. This take comes to a stop rather than a finished ending but it is still great to hear.
Next is ‘A Million Miles Away’ from a 1973 BBC session. There is an intimacy to this recording that the studio track simply doesn’t have. Rory’s guitar may be too upfront for some listeners, (the bass is hard to hear) but I like it. The band lets the track run its course, almost a full eight minutes, and for me, I would have been fine had it run even longer.
‘Should’ve Learnt My Lesson’ is a full band outtake from 1971’s “Deuce” sessions. The released version is a sharp, concise shuffle with Rod de’Ath’s drums in the foreground, pushing the number along at a steady pace and Rory feathering the strings of his guitar.
This outtake opens with Gallagher quoting Muddy Waters on guitar before easing into a long, loping intro. The slow, easy pace is maintained for the number’s full seven-and-a-half-minute length. A worthy addition to Gallagher’s library but it won’t make you forget the released take.
Note: the liner notes list Lou Martin on piano on the track when he is not present. This performance is not included on the single CD or vinyl set.
Rory’s cover of Peter Green’s ‘Leaving Town Blues’ is from one of his last sessions, and was previously released on 1994’s Green tribute “Rattlesnake Guitar – The Music of Peter Green”.
A personal favorite of mine, I was disappointed to see that thirty-eight seconds have been trimmed from the original track; Rory warming up, settling in and then bearing down on the number. We now have five seconds before the vocal begins. The cut seems arbitrary as there is more than enough time left on the disc.
Even more so than his other covers, Rory’s take on the tune is highly personalized; he even adds a verse not in the original.
It is an extremely dense mix and the credits here do not match those from “Rattlesnake Guitar – The Music of Peter Green”. The liner notes here again credit Gallagher as playing harmonica where there isn’t any, and list Jim Leverton on bass (I cannot hear bass on the track, but there might be)
The liner notes for “Rattlesnake Guitar” do not list Gallagher on harmonica, or Leverton on bass, but do credit John Cook on keyboards and Spoon on Jews harp – Cook’s keyboard fills are buried deep in the mix and the Jews harp seems to have been lost amidst the higher end resonances of Rory’s slide guitar and mandolin.
The next two numbers are from guest sessions that Rory did for two of his early influences.
He played on three tracks on skiffle king Lonnie Donegan’s 1978 “comeback” LP “Puttin’ On the Style” (his first release in fifteen years). The producers put him in the studio with a busload of “name” rock stars, but the tracks tended to be overcrowded with guest stars and undercut the sound and style of skiffle that it was supposed to be celebrating.
They did pick what to me, is the most successful of the three, ‘Drop Down Mama’, with Leo Sayer’s harmonica work coming closest to capturing the spirit of session. Donegan calls Rory out to take a brief solo and his slide cannot help but put a smile on your face.
1971’s “The London Muddy Waters Sessions” found Gallagher playing on almost all the tracks. The compilers chose ‘I’m Ready’ for inclusion; it is representative of both the pluses and minuses of the approach taken by session’s producers. Ric Grech’s bass is a standout, as is Carey Bell’s harmonica. Georgie Fame’s organ feels out of place and the decision to overdub a four-piece horn section now seems pointless.
Water’s guitarist at the time, Sammy Lawhorn takes the first solo and Rory the second.
The disc closes out on an especially high note with a raucous version of fan-favorite ‘Bullfrog Blues’ taken from the same WNCR-FM broadcast that ‘I Could’ve Had Religion’ came from.
Fronting a trio, playing in an empty ballroom, Rory and the band kick up a ruckus as keyboardist Lou Martin matches Rory’s slide lick for lick. This is a perfect example of how Rory can pull out all the stops in a performance without ever getting sloppy or deploying speed simply to impress. Everything is done in support of the number.
A fantastic performance, and fine summation of Gallagher’s gifts.
We’ll take a look at Disc 2, Acoustic Blues in the next installment