You only have to look at the smiles onstage to know that these guys really are a Band of Friends. Gerry McAvoy and Ted McKenna were both a part of the Rory Gallagher band – Gerry since it’s formation in 1971 where he became such a mainstay that Rory never got round to even having him sign a contract (it was usually down to a short phone call from Rory asking “Gerry, do you fancy coming in to record an album/go on a tour…” Ted joined for several excellent 80’s Gallagher albums. The missing ‘Rory’ part of the Gallagher tribute band was found in the form of Dutch guitar wizard Marcel Scherpenzeel.
The band recently gave a mighty performance at Bonn Harmonie where I can only say that Rory would have been smiling happily down from guitar hero heaven. 3songsbonn last did an interview with the band in 2013 so it was high time to speak with them again before the show…
Gerry, there’s a new book coming out on Rory by Julian Vignoles ‘The Man Behind the Guitar’. You’ve already covered the story well in your own book ‘Riding Shotgun’.
Were you approached to contribute to it, and is there still anything to say?
Gerry: Yes, I was contacted. I think this is more about the music, the songs and how Rory came to write them. I don’t know how he would know that – he wouldn’t have a clue…
Which is probably why he contacted you, for the background I guess.
Gerry: Yes, but honestly it was Rory – he wrote the songs
Marcel: He wrote to me as well and wanted me to tell him some stories. But I didn’t want to do that.
It doesn’t really matter how he wrote them though does it? They’re great songs, and you said in my first interview that listening to the old albums inspired you to go out on the road with Ted and Marcel. Is that inspiration to play Rory’s songs still there?
Gerry: Oh yes, it’s still there as much as ever. And there’s more and more stuff coming up on YouTube, and you see a different light you know. With different musicians, different drummers and such. With us as well it’s changed. We’re choosing different songs now, bringing different songs into the set. So it’s still keeping it alive. Yes, I’m still inspired playing those songs.
Marcel is nodding in agreement I should mention.
Marcel: You can play the songs five thousand times, and five thousand times it’s different. The solos, the tempo, the interaction together, the audience. That’s the nice thing of Rory’s songs you know, everything is in: From Bluesy, Country, Jazz and that’s nice. Really nice.
You’ve been playing Rory’s part of these songs for five years now Marcel. Has the way you play them now changed from the early concerts?
Marcel: In the beginning I was a bit nervous, and thinking about how to play this and that. But Gerry told me no, no, no, just be yourself. Try to have fun with the songs. I think we give 200% and really, sometimes if you think about things, it doesn’t go well. We have fun together, and you can see it.
Gerry: What we do you see is. The songs, and the way Rory wrote them. There was a lot of improvisation. I mean Rory never played the same thing twice. Ted as well, he never played the same thing twice, and we don’t play the same thing twice, so it keeps it alive. Keeps us all on our toes, you know.
The songs that were your favourites five years ago. Are they still the same songs?
Gerry: There’s a lot of songs I’d love to do that we currently don’t, but that’s down to the structures of the songs, and particularly the ones with a keyboard. With Lou Martin and Rod (D’eath). There’s a bunch of songs in there I’d love to do – but the keyboard is so dominant.
I guess you know my next question then. Why haven’t you got a keyboard player with you?
Gerry: Well there’s a couple of guys around. In fact, I discovered a guy over in Ireland when I was there recently. A guy named John McCullough. An amazing Blues player, so you never know. But there are a bunch of guys… Geraint Watkins is another.
Clearly, you have given the keyboard idea a thought.
Gerry: Particularly because in 2020 it will, sadly, be the anniversary of Rory’s death. 25 years. So for that particular year, we’re thinking of doing something a little bit different. Maybe we’ll augment the band for that period. From May to something like August or September.
Have you thought of doing what a number of bands do – take a particular album specifically out on the road and play it through?
Gerry: Yes, Ted has also talked about that. I mean, Springsteen for instance from within his set will pick a whole album. It’s a great idea. Ted suggested ‘Stagestruck’ as that was something he was also on at the time. That could be something for 2020 as well.
Stepping away from exploring past archives, 2018 has had some exciting gigs I hear. You were onstage with Van Morrison earlier this year?
Gerry: We played with him in Peer, Belgium along with Stevie Van Zandt. Peer was great, a big festival that’s very well organized. I said hello to Van. Well, actually he remembered me because he said hello to me first. It Wasn’t like ‘Hi Gerry, how you doing?’ though (laughs), it was more like – Gerry speaks in a gruff voice: ‘What about you Gerry?’ and he was off to the dressing room…
But he’s in great form at the moment. Singing well, and he’s got a great band. A friend of Ted’s is a percussionist with Van’s band and very good – Teena Lyle.
I saw him in Cologne recently playing super Saxophone. Very Jazzy these days.
Gerry: He’s jazzed things up, but that’s where he comes from in a way. He’s always been influenced by both.
As was Rory who also dabbled with a saxophone on his first solo disc. Did Rory and Van play together?
Gerry: A few times. Festivals mostly. I think Rory was even meant to play on one of Van’s tracks, but it never came to fruition. So yes, we did a couple of shows with Van.
I’ve also seen pictures of Rory from way back appearing with Phil Lynott at the Hot Press Music Festival in 1982 (Punchestown in Ireland). There was a crowd of 16,000. Did you play at the show?
Gerry: No, I didn’t. It was actually organized by Rory though. He was invited to play with the Stones at Slane Castle the week after, but for some reason, Rory said no. He put Punchestown together. He invited U2 down who were just breaking at the time. They didn’t call themselves U2 for the show though. Phil Lynott and also Paul Brady got up and played with Rory.
You mention in your book the problems of playing live music in Ireland in those days. You refer to yourself as a ‘Belfast Catholic’ which was something of a problem… You were employed as a Law Clerk and your religion cost you your job.
Gerry: Well, I can’t prove it. The following year I was meant to go to London, Whitechapel and Law School. But suddenly – that was that. Over.
Which was fortuitous as it decided you on a music career. Fortuitous was also the fact that your first major band, Deep Joy folded at the same time as Rory’s legendary Taste trio broke up.
Gerry: That’s right, both Deep Joy and Taste played their last concerts New Years Eve 1970/71
Sad in that Deep Joy were doing well – and could have been a big band?
Gerry: Well, It was Progressive Rock, or maybe Psychedelic Rock – I mean, we didn’t know what we were doing. We had an oboe player… We actually started on a tour of Germany with John Mayall. We lasted two shows before we got kicked off the tour (laughs) because we were going down too well. We used to do this psychedelic Rock and the audience were going – (folds his arms with a baffled and bored expression) but then, at the end of the night, Jimmy Carlisle, who was an old Rock n Roller – we did Eddie Cochran’s ‘My Babe’ and the crowd went crazy. They’d sat through the psychedelic Rock all evening and the next thing there’s ‘diddly, diddly diddly, dee…!’ and they just went crazy.
Why did Deep Joy fold in the end?
Gerry: It was the old problem – a year in London on a starvation diet. But we did a lot of festivals. With John Mayall and Atomic Rooster. We did a lot of shows with Taste too, so Rory was sort of checking out myself and Wilgar (Campbell, drummer) at the same time.
Looking again at your book Rory may not have been obviously political but he couldn’t avoid being pulled into the political melting-pot of the time.
Gerry: I was lucky to grow up in the 50’s and 60’s. Music in Belfast actually amalgamated both religions. Protestant and Catholic musicians would all go to the same pub. We’d all be together. Music broke that barrier down, and to this day they’re still my friends.
And the fans. When we did those shows in the Ulster Hall. It didn’t matter what religion we were, you know. Rory sort of brought the people together.
You played The Ulster Hall at Christmas 1971, which was the height of the troubles. What did Rory say about that?
Gerry: I was aware of what was happening in Belfast more than Rory was. Finally you say ‘the hell with it!’ and play. People were starved of live music at the time. The clubs weren’t booking bands because it was too dangerous to go out. The concerts were, like 7.30 pm to 9 pm, quite early so the people could get home, and those people remember those concerts.
It was a key time in the Rory Gallagher Band’s life for sure. Do you have a particular period that you look back on with most affection?
Gerry: To me, it was all good. From the beginning playing with Wilgar. The band changed, and with Rod and Lou it was quite a successful period for Rory in the 70’s, and then Ted joined and took it in a different direction. Because Rory had this gift – whatever style of musician joined the band, Rory could write songs to suit, like say, Rod, or Lou, with piano, or like Ted with a heavier sound.
How did that go down initially? In your book, you say Rory was particularly hard on drummers. Would you agree Ted?
Ted: It was all because he never had any drums coming through his monitors so at times he thought I wasn’t playing loud enough. Meanwhile, backstage, the sound was going up in the air and I was playing as loud as I always play (note: Ted’s bands include Alex Harvey and Michael Schenker!)
The songs are still as popular as ever though Gerry. Earlier this year, for example, I heard a young Croatian Lady named Vanja Sky play ‘Bad Penny’ and, speaking to her after the show, she’s a huge fan of Rory.
Gerry: What’s her name? I’ll have to check her out. There are quite a few younger people doing Rory’s songs.
It’s good to see and hear the music is still popular from the 70’s and 80’s and still being played by youngsters. Even though the original musicians themselves are not so young now. I was sad to hear of Chas Hodges dying recently (Chas & Dave).
Gerry: Yeah, I knew Chas very well. I thought they (Chas & Dave) were great. Even before that, Chas was in a band called Heads, Hands & Feet (with Albert Lee).
Gerry: And the singer, Tony Colton. He actually produced the Taste album.
Ted: I remember my band supporting them
You’ve played with quite a few bands Ted. Any new ones added since we last met?
Ted: I did a tour with Michael Schenker two years ago. I’ve also played with Paul Rose. (Note: I found out afterwards that Newcastle born Rose actually sued U2 for stealing his guitar solo on Achtung Baby)
Getting back to my original questions about what’s happened since the last interview with the band, How have you kept things interesting?
Gerry: Well, we’ll do certain songs and sometimes you think, oh, it doesn’t work so well. Maybe there were keyboards on it originally for instance. So we’ve changed it quite a bit (laughs) I Hope!
Marcel: People want to hear Bullfrog Blues, Moonchild, Shadow Play, Tattooed Lady, but sometimes we don’t play it – and we say, well, we didn’t miss Tattooed Lady’.
Gerry:It depends where you’re playing too. I mean, if we’re playing in a club like this then we can play two hours and get a lot of stuff in. Other times, you’re playing a festival and you’ve got 50 minutes – you can’t get everything in.
Marcel: Also, if you choose say ‘Million Miles Away’ it’s a long song and if you only have 50 minutes…
With so many songs already, there is always room for more. Have you planned any studio time for this year?
Gerry: No. I think next year we’ll bring out a best of. A mixture of our own material and some Rory stuff. I’d love to do a Blues album.
Gerry: (Laughs) well, Ted and I aren’t great on acoustic (laughter from everyone that supports this observation!) I’d love to do like a really down-home Blues thing with songs we love from the past, and a couple of our own Blues songs. A hard-driven Blues Album.
Finally. A test question for each of you: Imagine you are called over to the telephone and the person handing you the receiver says there’s someone on the other end who wants you to join their band for a tour. Who would you be wishing was on the other end of the phone?
Gerry: Dead or Alive? Dead, it would be Muddy Waters.
Gerry: Okay, living would be Bruce Springsteen
Ted: Steve Winwood.
Gerry: You’ve already played with him Ted!
Marcel: I think I would want to play with Jeff Beck. I’m really into his music. The people he plays with, whether young or old. He has ladies in the band too. They’re all amazing.
Would you just play his songs?
Gerry: No, he’d probably sneak in a Band of Friends song…
Well, I won’t keep you. There’s an audience waiting keenly out there. What do you think of German audiences?
Gerry: It’s always good to come back here and play. I think the audiences are fantastic. They’re great. But it’s always a little different depending on what area you’re in. Tonight they’ll listen, but at the same time they’ll want a bit of Rock n Roll.
Hopefully, there will also be some young faces as well, to show the music will keep on being appreciated for many years.
Gerry: Well, hopefully, some younger than us! We’ll see when we get down there.
Good luck gentleman and enjoy the show.