Eagle Rock Entertainment // 2010 // 82 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // November 18th, 2010
"He could have been in a seminary, except that his chalice was his guitar and his prayers were the blues." -- Bob Geldof on Rory Gallagher
Rory Gallagher (1948-1995) was never a household name in the United States. In many ways, however, that's exactly how he wanted it. One of the premier blues-rock guitarists of the '70s, Gallagher was fiercely committed to his music and just as fiercely committed to avoiding the constrictions of the music industry. He refused to record singles, refused to lip-sync on TV programs, and refused to manage his career in any long-term fashion. He once scrapped an entire album even though his record label all but insisted it would make him a star in the U.S., and turned down a chance to join the Rolling Stones in the mid-'70s. All of his decisions were made solely and exclusively to service his music; his career and the prospects of fame and fortune never once entered his mind. Such behavior meant that he never became the megastar his enormous talents all but dictated he should have been, but his devotion to his art inspired a generation of musicians, from U2 guitarist the Edge and Boomtown Rats singer Bob Geldof to Slash and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. If his following has never developed beyond more than a cult, it is a cult that has had a profound influence on rock guitarists to this day.
Ghost Blues: The Story of Rory Gallagher tells Gallagher's story from his early days struggling in the Irish music industry to his glory days in the '70s to his painful decline in the '80s and '90s. It's a skillfully directed documentary that includes some remarkable performance clips, interview excerpts, and reminiscences from many who knew Gallagher, including his brother and manager Donal, director and former music journalist Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous), and musicians, including Slash, the Edge, and Marr as well as members of Gallagher's band, who met and played with him at various times. All describe a man who was personally generous, kind, and passionate about his music, but who could be stubborn and uncompromising about anything involving demands made by the industry. His refusal to kowtow to record executives could be infuriating (Would it really have been such a betrayal to have released even one single in the U.S.?), but there's no denying just how important artistic integrity was to him. The documentary also explains how Gallagher, along with Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, fought hard to redefine the stodgy Irish music scene and how his battles helped pave the way for future Irish rock stars like U2 and the Boomtown Rats. His last years, in which he became dependent on prescription drugs to calm his travel anxieties and how they eventually led to the liver disease that took his life at age 47, are also discussed but they're handled delicately and tastefully. Gallagher did not lead the typically debauched life of a rock star (he was too devoted to his music to even spend much time hanging around backstage at his concerts) so this isn't the typical rock star biography. That's not to say it's whitewashed, but Gallagher's foibles were more related to his obstinate devotion to his music rather than any self-destructive tendencies, which makes his sad final years all the more tragic. It's a mark of just how well-directed the documentary is that even if you've never heard of Rory Gallagher, it will make you understand just what a huge loss his death really was.
The documentary alone would be more than enough to make this release worth recommending. Also included, however, is a second DVD that compiles all of Gallagher's appearances on the German music TV show Beat Club between 1971 and 1972. Here is the listing for that disc:
* "Hands Up"
* "Just the Smile"
* "Used to Be"
* "In Your Town"
* "Should Have Learned My Lesson"
* "Crest of a Wave"
* "Pistol Slapper Blues"
* "I Don't Know Where I'm Going"
* "Going to My Hometown"
* "I Could've Had Religion"
* "McAvoy Boogie"
* "Hoodoo Man"
* "Messin' with the Kid"
These are spectacular performances, capturing Gallagher at the peak of his formidable powers. From ferocious rockers like "Used to Be" and "Crest of a Wave" to delicate acoustic ballads like "I Don't Know Where I'm Going" and "Going to My Hometown," Gallagher shows his musical dexterity with equal skill. Ably backed by bassist Gerry McAvoy and drummer Wilgar Campbell, Gallagher delivers passionate performances with both skill and humor. Indeed, what's actually most surprising is that for all of Gallagher's fiery playing, his enthusiasm and passion are so infectious that his music never seems forced or hamfisted. Unlike too many other blues-rock artists of the era, Gallagher actually knew when to hold back and when to have fun playing music. It's this enthusiasm that will make even those who take a dim view of '70s blues-rock be impressed with Gallagher's talent.
Technical specs are, as is usual for Eagle Rock's music DVDs, exemplary. The documentary's anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is good enough, even if some of the archival footage is in rough shape. It comes with a solid stereo mix. The second disc is the most impressive. The full-screen transfer looks excellent, with vivid colors and not many video glitches. The music has been remixed into 5.1 surround mixes (both Dolby and DTS) and they sound spectacular, with clear separation and excellent but not overwhelming volume. They do sound a bit echo-laden at times, because the performances were filmed not in a concert hall but in a cavernous TV studio without much of a live audience, but for the most part the sound is so stellar that you'll be amazed that these were filmed nearly forty years ago. There are no extras.
In any event, either one of these discs would make a great find for anyone interested in Gallagher's music. The combination of the two is unbeatable. Longtime fans will get a superb documentary that examines Gallagher's life and music respectfully and authoritatively. They will also get some of Gallagher's definitive live performances captured in best-ever audio and video quality. Newcomers will find the documentary an excellent summary of why Gallagher is so revered and the phenomenal live performances will whet their appetites to track down some of his best albums, such as Deuce (1971) and Calling Card (1976). Ghost Blues stands as a perfect tribute to Gallagher's life and talent. It's the quintessential Rory Gallagher DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* All-Music Guide: Rory Gallagher