[18 December 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Crest of a Wave: The Best of Rory Gallagher is a two-disc retrospective of Ireland’s own, largely unsung, guitar hero. The set comes from Eagle Rock Entertainment, the company that brought us last spring’s excellent DVD of Gallagher’s triumphant 1987 homecoming concert, Rory Gallagher Live in Cork, and it is a superb collection of 24 classic tracks.
Of course, Rory Gallagher deserves far more than a two-disc set, even one as comprehensive as this. He also deserves to be mentioned alongside all the other guitar gods of the ‘60s and ‘70s, like Hendrix, Clapton, Townshend, Page, and Beck, but puzzlingly, he isn’t. Listening to these songs, one has to wonder why. After all, this is a guy who turned down an offer to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones! He won the 1972 Melody Maker poll for best guitarist, beating out all those other guys by far. He recorded albums with Jerry Lee Lewis and Albert King, sat in on London Sessions with Muddy Waters, and blew headliners like Aerosmith and the Faces off of the stage. His Irish Tour 1974 became a hit documentary film and a best-selling record, he played blistering live shows all over the world and he toured the United States an astounding 25 times. In the liner notes, for Crest of a Wave , Billboard magazine’s Ed Christman talks about how Gallagher put Ireland of the rock ‘n’ roll map years before the likes of U2, and how there are still week-long “Rory-fests” a couple times a year around Europe. Surely, all these things make up the very definition of a “guitar god”.
And then, there’s the music itself. Rory Gallagher released 12 studio albums and six live discs during his career, and they are well-represented here, from the rockers like “Shinkicker”, to the acoustic blues of Leadbelly’s “Out on the Western Plains”, from the blues rock for which he’s probably best known, like “Walking on Hot Coals” to the folk of “Out of My Mind”. There are even incredible, irresistible forays into jazz, with “They Don’t Make Them Like You Anymore” and “Calling Card”. Crest of a Wave gathers every genre found in Gallagher’s work, and underscores every facet of his phenomenal playing skill.
Gallagher’s nephew, Daniel, notes, however, that his main intention with this collection was to showcase his uncle’s considerable songwriting talent, which is sometimes overlooked in the fervor surrounding his genius as a guitarist. Not that the solos are slighted here—they are definitely present—but so are the melodies in songs like “Follow Me” and “Moonchild”, so is the storytelling in “Loanshark Blues” or “In Your Town”, so are the evocative atmospheres of “Overnight Bag”, “Wheels Within Wheels”, and “A Million Miles Away”.
Another not-as-often-noticed talent of Gallagher’s on display in this set is his vocal ability. Unlike almost all of his contemporaries, with perhaps the exception of Pete Townshend, Rory Gallagher can actually sing. The softer songs, particularly, show his gifts in this area as his gently weathered, not-too-gravelly voice carries the listener through the lyrical landscapes. The road-worn weariness and aching emotion he brings to “A Million Miles Away” will enchant you every time. But he can also belt it out like the best of the blues shouters. And it’s his delivery on the blues rock tracks, along with the formidable fretwork, that give an indication of what it must have been like to hear him live (for those of us who missed it).
In fact, that it contains none of his live recordings is probably the only real drawback to Crest of a Wave: The Best of Rory Gallagher. But it’s a good introduction to his work for new fans and a great overview for others. One hopes it will spark resurgence in recognition for Rory Gallagher and prompt further digging into his back catalogue, so he eventually gets the widespread acknowledgment—and complete boxed set treatment—he truly deserves.