Rory Gallagher International Tribute Festival 2014. Ballyshannon, 30 May – 1 June 2014.
Honouring one of Ireland's greatest guitarists, the International Rory Gallagher Tribute festival takes place in the feted bluesman's hometown. Featuring Eric Bell, Pat McManus, and a host of others, the 2014 event proved one of the best yet.
Photo: Jimmy Little Jnr
Tucked away in a far corner of County Donegal, in what in widely regarded as one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland lies the town of Ballyshannon. Less than ten miles from the border with Northern Ireland, it is a quiet unassuming sort of place, and for the most part is the picture of serenity. Not a lot happens in Ballyshannon. In the summer months, its location on the Atlantic coastline makes it a destination for tourists, and it is also home to a yearly folk festival. However for fans of rock and blues music it holds a special significance, as the birth place of one of Ireland’s most celebrated musicians, the late Rory Gallagher.
Rory was born in Ballyshannon at the suitably monikered Rock Hospital many moons ago, and the town has taken upon itself the mantle of guardian of all things Gallagher. A life sized bronze statue depicting Rory, his trusted Stratocaster in hand stands proudly in the town centre. And right now it’s being besieged by eager fans, lining up to have their picture taken with it, as the town is once again host to the Rory Gallagher International Tribute Festival. Taking place annually every June bank holiday for the last thirteen years, and endorsed by the Gallagher family themselves, it’s an event where Rory’s legacy is truly celebrated.
Walking about town, the famous Irish hospitality - the love of a drink and ‘the craic’ - hits you immediately. Being an Irishman myself, I should be used to such things, but the sight of the local Garda Siochana (that’s the police force) chatting to a young lad who is happily sipping from a bottle of highly potent Buckfast Tonic Wine on the street takes even me aback. It’s a warm and relaxed atmosphere that greets you, as the town gets used to the influx of people on this, the opening day of the festival proper. Immensely proud to have taken Gallagher back as their birth right son, the entire town gets behind the event. Rory’s music pours from every pub. A makeshift stage in the centre of the town hosts a young band who are midway through a ramshackle version of AC/DC’s TNT. They’re surrounded by suitably refreshed head-banging youths who are and loving every minute of it! The weekend has just begun, and everyone is in the mood to celebrate.
Of course there is a festival proper to attend, and those that have travelled from all over the world, including a greater than proportional representation of Dutch and German patrons are headed for the marquee, where the ticket purchasing faithful are preparing for the main event. For taking to the stage tonight are a pair of Ireland’s surviving guitar legends.
First up is Eric Bell. Eric, for the uninitiated, was once sparring partner to Philip Lynott as the original guitar player in Thin Lizzy. He may have opted out under a drunken cloud before the band had achieved their greatest success, but not before they had scored a top 10 hit with Whisky In The Jar, and recorded three full length albums. It’s easy to forget Bell’s contribution to the band given the glory years that followed, but he is rightly revered as an originator, by everyone from the late Gary Moore, who initially replaced him in the band, to James Hetfield, with whom he jammed on his most famous tune in Dublin in 1999. Tonight battling early sound problems, he returns to his, and Rory’s first love, the blues. Opening with the standard Shake Your Money Maker, and rattling through a number of classics it’s apparent just what a master of his instrument he is. Playing in an almost throwaway manner on the same beat up old Stratocaster that he used to record Whisky in The Jar all those years ago, he lets his fingers do the talking. Sadly, that tune doesn’t receive an outing tonight. However another early Lizzy classic does. ‘I am your main man if you’re looking for trouble, I take no lip no one’s tougher than me’ sings Bell, as the familiar attacking chopped chords of The Rocker ring out. It’s spectacular, and the crowd can’t get enough of it. Since Lynott’s passing, no line-up of the band has played the song. And rightly so, for aside from Lizzy drummer Brian Downey, Bell is perhaps the only man who can rightly lay claim to it in Lynott’s absence. He plays with passion, the unmistakable solo ringing out clearly and crisply, arriving at its natural crescendo and peaking with the audience. Although many would like to hear another Lizzy song or two, it’s the perfect note on which to end the set.
Photo: Jimmy Little Jnr.
As darkness begins to fall, the until now sparsely populated marquee begins to fill up, and rightly so too, for Ireland’s unsung guitar hero is up next. In the 1980’s Mama’s Boys were touted as the next big thing. Initially taken under Thin Lizzy’s wing, the three McManus brothers supported Lizzy on their Thunder and Lightning Tour. They went on to tour with everyone from Ratt to Bon Jovi, and it seemed that the world was theirs for the taking. However questionable management decisions and the tragic passing of youngest brother - the band’s drummer Tommy - were to rob them of ever fulfilling their potential. Principal songwriter and driving force behind Mama’s Boys Pat McManus though, is not a bitter man. In fact he is a gentleman. And like the rest of the faithful, he has been a supporter of this festival from the start. Performing almost every year since its inception, it wouldn’t be the same without Pat and his band.
As the Pat McManus Band take to the stage, there is an air of excitement, and even Eric Bell is watching from the wings. Opening with a trio of tracks from their latest album Dark Emerald Highway, they don’t disappoint. The rapturous crowd of devotees at the front of the stage who have travelled form Holland certainly seem to agree. There’s a haunting tribute to Gary Moore in the Celtic-stomp of Belfast Boy, and an early outing of a Rory classic in Moonchild rightfully raises the roof. However the biggest response is in the first half of the set is reserved for Pat’s rendition of the Mama’s Boys classic Runaway Dreams, which sees the guitarist alternating flawlessly between guitar and fiddle. As the band leave the stage Pat straps on a beat up old acoustic for his solo spot. ‘This is a song written for Ballyshannon’ he declares, as he launches into Return of the G Man, his tribute to Rory. There are plenty of Rory Gallagher tribute bands playing his songs during the weekend, but this song is something altogether special. ‘He was born with a six-string in his hand, a wayward child, a smokin’ gun, the best in the land. And he tattooed the blues deep into your soul, left you buring with a passion that never let you go. How I wish the return of the G man’. It’s a sentiment that the captivated crowd fully understand, and a beautiful and perfectly pitched emotional tribute to the fallen hero, with more than a knowing wink to Rory’s own Out On The Western Plain. It’s difficult to imagine the set peaking after this, but Pat still has a few more tricks up his sleeve, not least an airing of Mama’s Boys biggest hit Needle in The Groove which sees every member of the audience singing along as the last notes ring out. The encore is left to a trio of classic covers in Rory’s What’s Going On, Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well and ZZ Top’s La Grange which brings the set to end on exhilarating form.
Over the next two days various members of Rory’s own band, the ‘Band Of Friends’ and ex-Whitesnake man Bernie Marsden, among others are due to perform. Rory may be gone, but his legacy is in fine hands. The festival that bears his name is truly something special; A small home-grown affair, without sponsorship or corporate logos, well, aside from the obligatory Guinness. With the likes of Slash expressing a desire to perform at the festival it’s only a matter of time before it grows into something much bigger. It’s a credit to a man who just wanted to play the guitar. Relating a tale of a trip to Chicago in the early 1980’s, Pat McManus tells of an encounter with one local aging bluesman ‘Do you know that Rory Gallagher?’ he asked. ‘Now that boy has the blues’!