Where do you begin with this? I mean, really, where in the world do you begin? Check Shirt Wizard – Live in ’77 comprises 20 tracks and lasts two hours, and it’s got my brain buzzing like a jar full of wasps. Well, here goes . . .
First thing is, this is my favourite Rory Gallagher line-up – not that he ever had a bad band. But here we have not only his long-standing right hand man Gerry McAvoy on bass, but also somewhat unsung piledriving drummer Rod De’Ath, and also Lou Martin’s keys, which add some flavours I like. Others will prefer his power trio period, but for me this is the best of the best.
|Rory Gallagher - a wizard, a true star|
Such a great songwriter as well, who was so fresh lyrically - Rory is never a peddler of the usual clichés. Here you get a great reading of the near-jazzy yet infernally catchy ‘Calling Card’. ‘Tattoo’ed Lady’ is so evocative, but economical, with lines like “I spent my youth under canvas roof, as I roamed from town to town”, and set to such an original, swinging tune. And of course ‘A Million Miles Away’ is incomparably atmospheric. Hell, even when it’s just a matter of riffs the man is a magician - witness the high-tension-wire tautness of ‘Moonchild’ and the crackle-and-jab of the high octane ‘Secret Agent’.
Rory’s inventiveness and playfulness are a joy. Take ‘Bought And Sold’ for example, a chunk of boogie that Quo might have chugged away at merrily in a straight line for several minutes. But in Rory’s hands it takes off in fresh directions like a kite in a stiff breeze. McAvoy and De’Ath put the hammer down at one point, but Rory’s playing remains relaxed, like a genius footballer who always seems to have more time than anyone else, before they take it down into a great ‘pizzicato’ passage and then one of his trademark guitar/voice harmonising segments. Your jaw will drop at similar excursions on a regular basis.
Rory was doing ‘unplugged’ segments before the term had even been coined, and here he straps on his acoustic for ‘Out On The Western Plain’, which sounds like it must have been around forever. I’d normally run for the hills in response to ragtime guitar, but Rory makes it work on ‘Barley & Grape Rag’ because he finds the earthiness and fun in it, whereas to my ears most exponents just sound twee. ‘Too Much Alcohol’ is a raucous slide affair, on a resonator methinks. Then there’s long-standing favourite ‘Going To My Hometown’ on which the rest of the band gradually reappear. I mean, where the hell did he get this from? He barks away enthusiastically over rattling mandolin, while the audience claps along in anticipation of the stomping beat, and Lou Martin adds a fun piano solo, combining to create a classic that’s a one-off if ever there was one.
The energy levels are staggering, notably on ‘I Take What I Want’, a Sam and Dave soul hit that gets shaken’n’stirred and turned inside out and upside down, with chords flying around like shards of metal and needle sharp lead playing, some Celtic leanings, and a mind-boggling second solo. I’m listening to it again as I type, and I’m breathless.
But they really get into the red zone when Rory lets rip with fiery slide playing, as on the unstoppable foot-to-the-floor rock’n’roll of ‘Souped-Up Ford’, where he whips up a veritable storm and Martin boogie woogies away on the Joanna. Or of course on the climactic, surging ‘Bullfrog Blues’, with its iconic “Well did you evvaaah” opening.
But slide or not, Rory’s guitar is a joy to listen to, right from the glorious fuzzy warmth of both rhythm and lead playing on the opening ‘Do You Read Me’ to the encores ‘Used To Be’ and ‘Country Mile’, by which time I’m recalling the famous phrase describing the playing of the jazz cornettist Bix Beiderbecke - like “shooting bullets at a bell”.
Enough. I’m worn out with enjoyment. If there’s a better album than Check Shirt Wizard in 2020, I’ll be dumbfounded. This is the work of a rock’n’roll genius, sitting on top of the world.
Check Shirt Wizard - Live In '77 is released on 6 March, and can be pre-ordered here.