Back in the Ireland of the 1970’s the Christmas gig was the highlight of the year. Any band with designs on “making it” had long ago headed to the UK; but homesickness was always a factor and what better way to ensure a Christmas dinner at home than to undertake an Irish tour in late December.
Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy and Horslips were the rockin’ Santas. Not only did they strut the boards in their hometowns they played the other major urban centers – including, to their credit, Belfast.
Talk about hitting a warzone! It’s sometimes easy to forget just how dangerous it was up North - as The Miami Showband tragically discovered in 1975.
Rory, in particular, played Belfast religiously. His following had always transcended sectarian divides, besides bassist, Gerry McAvoy, and drummer, Wilgar Campbell, were locals.
But then Rory would have taken a gig at the gates of hell itself if the bread was decent – for he was a bluesman with a hellhound on his trail!
Rory meant a lot more than music to us. He was the best and what else did we have in Ireland back then? Joyce and Yeats, I suppose, but they were dead as doornails and it was hard to pump your fist in the air for Molly Bloom, or fight your way to the front of the stage to rhapsodize about “bee loud glades.”
But you could scream “Messin’ with the Kid” at the top of your lungs when Rory was leading you, and oh the whiskey-soaked paradise you entered when he shredded his sweat-stained Stratocaster during “Bullfrog Blues!”
Even Hendrix agreed with us – when asked what it was like to be the greatest blues guitarist in the world, the man from Seattle shrugged, “I don’t know, ask Rory Gallagher.”
Rory had a way of placing other artists in perspective. I once saw him open for Rod Stewart on Staten Island and Sir Roderick seem very common after the encounter. Don’t even ask how shabby a very stoned Aerosmith sounded in Central Park after the Corkman’s adrenalized set. It begs the question, why would anyone in their right mind have Rory open for them?
And yet despite all the foreign triumphs, there was nothing quite like Rory on his home turf for the Christmas gig. I was often home on vacation myself in those years, wondering if I could ever fit in again after the delights of New York City. Rory was like a bridge between these two very disparate worlds.
A magician onstage – he wielded that Strat like Merlin waving his wand. For two solid hours of bluesy mania you could believe that anything was possible. There was a unity to the audience. We screamed in unholy unison when Rory taunted and teased his own particular demons, and we swayed in silence when his sultry guitar lines took us to places we only experienced at his shows.
Did he know the effect he was having on us? I often wondered. With his long hair flowing, the sweat streaking his face and axe, his faded blue denim jacket and red flannel shirt tossed and sometimes tattered, he seemed on a different plane.
Off stage he was polite and distant. He approached me once in Dublin’s Television Club. Shy and standing in the shadows I couldn’t believe it as he strolled across the dance-floor.
“Any chance of a lift home?” He smiled.
“What?” Said I, only then realizing that he had mistaken me for some young fellow from Cork.
“Oh Jesus, I’m sorry.” He smiled again and turned away.
I watched him edge uneasily through the crowd. I felt like running after him and saying, “Yeah, no problem, man!”
I was ready to run out onto Harcourt Street, break into a car, jump-start it and drive him home – to hell with the consequences! Instead I stood there paralyzed, rooted disconsolately to that sticky dance-floor.
I never go home for Christmas anymore. Too much has changed. I don’t even know if musicians do Christmas gigs any more.