Cork Opera House 1987: How Rory Gallagher showed he could still rock 

Cork Opera House 1987: How Rory Gallagher showed he could still rock 

It was an older, more careworn Rory Gallagher who stepped on stage at Cork Opera House on November 4, 1987. At 39, Cork’s greatest rocker had lost some of his previous leanness and intensity. He looked tired around the eyes, this warhorse who’d spent so long at the frontline. 

But it took all of 30 seconds for the woes and wrinkles to fall away as he plunged into Continental Op, one of the strongest tracks from his summer 1987 album, Defender. Backed by long-time mainstays of bassist Gerry McAvoy and drummer Brendan O’Neill, Gallagher blazed through this blues blitzkrieg. It was as if an earthquake had struck Emmet Place.

“Rory wasn’t as fiery. A lot of the fire had gone out of him – because of one thing or another. His illness or whatever,” says Barry Barnes, leader of the Rory Gallagher tribute group Sinnerboy. “But the structure of his guitar solos was amazing. Perhaps not as wild as it used to be. Every solo told a story. It was so well put together – a beautiful, beautiful concert.” 

That Cork show, which in many ways put the fires under a Gallagher comeback, was captured for posterity in a live video (which can be enjoyed in full on YouTube). And now its spirit is to be conjured at the Opera House as Barnes and Sinnerboy – named after Gallagher’s 1971 belter Sinner Boy – recreate the gig from start to finish on Friday October 29.

“I think Cork awakened a little bit to Rory in ’87,” says Barnes, quite an authority on his hero’s music. “I’m not sure why. It must have been a good year. It was just a really great gig.” 

Gallagher passed away in 1995 aged 47 after complications following a liver transplant. But the idea that he had peaked in the Seventies isn’t really borne out if you listen to his catalogue says Barnes. With each new record, he progressed as songwriter, musician and artist. And if he wasn’t quite the rock’n’roll superman of 10 years previously, Cork 1987 nonetheless saw him operating at the height of his musical powers.

“People say he was best in the Seventies. For me, he was better with every album,” says Barnes. “Every album he brought out, I thought it was better than the one before, right up to Fresh Evidence [Gallagher’s1990 swan-song].” 

Gallagher had been coming through a rough patch in the years leading up to the Opera House show. He’d had a falling out with his label Chrysalis. Which was why Defender was self-released. Going independent was a blow to Gallagher.

He was also frustrated to see his milieu of frills-free blues-rock fall from fashion through the Eighties. It had been replaced by the pantomime genre of “hair metal”– a style of music he loathed. He wasn’t joking when he said he’d rather play with oldies The Shadows than with cool kids on the block Bon Jovi.

He’d started drinking and taking drugs (he looks visibly bloated on stage at the Opera House). And yet that old genius endured. And Defender was regarded by aficionados as up there with his finest.

“Defender is his most primal album in a decade and a half, based on his love for and faith in the blues, his encyclopaedic knowledge of elemental American music,” writes Julian Vignoles in his biography of Gallagher, Rory Gallagher: The Man Behind the Guitar.

Defender was a concept LP of sorts. Gallagher was a huge fan of noir detective stories and the project was his tribute to the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett (Continental Op, the first song he played in Cork, was named after a Hammett novel). He had elaborated on his love of hard-bitten detectives in a 1987 interview with Bill Graham of Hot Press, in which he had likened gumshoes to travelling bluesmen.

“I suppose I’m no great fan of the law or detectives, because they’re not always the nicest people – but in the movies they‘re always interesting because you don’t know their past,” he had told Graham.

“They just arrive in a city and set up an office. I’m not interested in the violence, it’s the characters, the remarks they make and the loyalties: particularly the code of honour between police and thieves in the French gangster movies. I mean there’s eating and drinking in all that stuff.” 

A screengrab of Rory Gallagher playing Cork Opera House in 1987.

Live at Cork Opera House 1987 leans heavily on old blues material. Gallagher performs three songs from Defender and five covers, including numbers by Lead Belly, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson.

“The setlist in Cork was weighted towards the blues,” says Barnes. “What we’re going to do is do the Cork thing but intersperse it. If you look at the running time of the Cork gig it was one hour 27 minutes.

“Now Rory would never go on stage for just one hour 27 minutes. He wouldn’t have broken into a sweat by then. They will have done other things that weren’t filmed. The other thing is, if we go to Cork and go on stage and not play A Million Miles away and Tattoo’d Lady – we won’t get out of Cork. It will be the hits.” 

Gallagher is today acknowledged as one of the greatest ever rock virtuosos. And new light has been shed on key moments from his career – such as his 1975 invitation/ audition to play with the Rolling Stones. Gallagher had been summoned to Rotterdam just as he was about to jet to Japan on tour (this before he developed his chronic fear of flying).

Mick Jagger believed Gallagher could make the ideal replacement for Mick Taylor, who’d dramatically quit

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