The claim that, when asked how it felt to be the world’s best guitarist, Jimi Hendrix replied “Why not ask Rory Gallagher?” has long since been debunked as myth. Then there is the story of Rory’s being invited to join the Rolling Stones. The fact of his joining them to jam together seems substantiated, but the details after that are hazy and disputed. What the two stories do tell you however is how highly the G Man was rated in the rock music world of his time. Even now there are a great many tribute bands throughout the world, with every sort of name you could make up out of a Gallagher lyric or album title; From Italy’s ‘Blue Print’ and ‘Big Guns’, through Scotland’s ‘Against the Grain’, Ireland’s ‘Shin Kickers’, England’s ‘Sinnerboy’ and onwards to the bizarrely chosen Norwegians ‘Bearded Lady’ (From the Rory song ‘Tattooed Lady’). Band of Friends are not a tribute band insists Bassman Gerry McAvoy, they are commemorating Rory’s music. Is there a difference between a Tribute and a commemoration? Well if there is, then it’s most likely down to who is in the band and the replacement of Brendan O’Neill on drums after Ted Mckenna’s untimely passing keeps the original Gallagher band quota high, but most importantly of course there is THAT man on bass guitar, Gerry McAvoy…
My last visit to a Band of Friends concert was at the Harmonie in 2018. I remember sitting with Gerry, Ted and Marcel Scherpenzeel shortly before the show discussing all things Rory before taking a band picture on the stairs. There were thoughts after McKenna’s death of calling it a day (see my interview with Gerry McAvoy). Five years on and only McAvoy remains from that trio when a new Band of Friends take the stage in 2023. The new line-up seems rather an odd one at first glance. ‘New’ drummer Brendal O’Neill was in a band with Gerry even before both played together with Rory. Newcastle-born guitarist Paul Rose has been described as ‘The best guitarist you’ve never heard of’ (Seymour Duncan Pick-ups) and was, from his early days a top-notch guitar man, chosen in fact by Rory as the best in a UK competition that attracted over a thousand entries. Guitarist Jim Kirkpatrick has supported many of Rocks biggest acts including Thin Lizzy, Foreigner, Kiss Whitesnake and Heart with his band FM.
Yes, you read that correctly, Two excellent guitarists to cover Rory’s sound? Actually the two function differently onstage to my ears. Kirkpatrick wields what looks like a copy of Rory’s iconic Stratocaster and delivers a similar sound to Rory’s (well who could sound identical to him?!). Rose on the other hand seems to be more exploratory, as on his sparse, slow build ‘Million Miles Away’. Now I’m beginning to understand what Gerry means about a difference between ‘Tribute’ and ‘Commemoration’. What I’m also thinking is ‘Hey, this is great. It’s not about the fiery guitar solos wrung from the heart anymore. It’s about the superb melodies and lyrical genius that have been so over-looked in the music of Rory Gallagher. It’s like hearing the old classic songs with a fresh coat of varnish”.
Even before the show started it was clear things would be different musically. Brendan O’Neill’s drumkit looks so small compared to that of his predecessor which seemed bolted together as if to withstand a Viking battering ram. Ted McKenna was a Rock music heavy hitter compared to O’Neill’s light jazz style, and the change is telling when the music starts, leaving more room for the melodies to breathe in each song. It’s a reminder that Gallagher’s own sound also changed somewhat every time his band did. Early albums had a jazz influence, especially with Lou Martin on keys and Wilgar Campbell on drums. Ted McKenna’s arrival from the Alex Harvey Band put rock more centre-stage. Keeping the sound fresh kept the band alive and so it is with Band of Friends tonight.
There is time for all four ‘friends’ to find their groove early on with ‘Continental Op’ and ‘Heart & Soul’. Indeed, they have it together so much and so early that one of the highlight numbers from a Rory set, ‘Moonchild’, seems almost thrown away coming just mid-way through the first set as it does. It shows though the sheer depth of material available. Brendan O’Neill spearheads the tight shuffle beat of ‘Cradle Rock’ perfectly and the thunder in ‘Bad Penny’ is another first half highlight.
There’s a short break for fresh air and fresh drinks before part two kicks off with a surprise choice. ‘Sense of Freedom’ was written and recorded for a film of the same name. There is a surprise too in that Gerry McAvoy takes on vocals that were previously handled by the great Frankie Miller. It’s one of those numbers that sounds like an Irish classic and I can imagine Thin Lizzy and Gary Moore playing it to perfection. Band of Friends do a great job of it themselves – with the restrained melodic Celtic solo from Paul Rose contrasting with Jim Kirkpatrick’s screaming urgency of a solo from his Rory Strat. It may not have been the evening’s best song, but it was the best one to illustrate how the new Band of Friends does musical business – the familiar and the fresh within one song. Brilliant.
‘Tattooed Lady’ was an unexpected highlight of the second set, before what should have been one of the evening’s best numbers. ‘A million Miles Away’ is the song most likely to bring a tear to hardened rock fans of a certain age; indeed it was played at the great man’s funeral. In keeping with the song’s history the lights went down leaving only tiny spotlights to run slowly around the ceiling and walls of the Harmonie. Paul Rose set the mood on a darkened stage with a slow guitar build-up that assumed everyone present would know what was coming and be silent. The audience certainly seemed to be filled with people who were old enough to have heard and loved Rory, so why was it that when the volume went down the talking went up? Gerry and Jim looked at each other in slight bewilderment. First shocked at the noise and for a moment sad. I felt the same shock and subsequent sadness, and a momentary feeling of guilt too that Bonn, my City, was letting Rory’s memory down. To his credit, the soundman racked up the mikes and speakers several notches; where they stayed for the remainder of the set (or maybe Rory’s ghostly spirit tweaked them defiantly)
No one would dream of going home from a gig like this without jumping around like it was 1976 to ‘Bullfrog Blues’ and the band did indeed return for the encore to send everyone home rocking.
Whenever two blues rock fans get together they will argue who the greatest guitarist ever is/was. It’s refreshing then to play down that guitar solo contest for a change and to find that Rory Gallagher was actually a gifted songwriter with a finely tuned ear for melody. I’m pleased to say that the new Band of Friends manage to merge the old Gallagher fire with modern subtlety. I hope their retirement is at least a million miles away from now and look forward to a fourth five-yearly interview with Gerry MacAvoy in 2028!