Though Rory Gallagher thought fit to shelve the recordings he captured in the Bay Area in December 1977, it’s likely that Notes From San Francisco (released May 17 on Eagle Records) would have been regarded as one of his strongest, liveliest studio efforts. It takes only a couple tracks before one picks up on the musicians catching the mythical “pocket,” swinging spontaneously and collectively, chugging tough behind their mercurial, hard pounding leader’s big bear growl and relentless guitar invention. For blues-based rock, particularly in the waning hours of that decade, this represents as good as it gets, and though 33 years too late, we’re fortunate to finally be able to hear this lot.
While not a far cry from the albums that would have sat on either side of it – 1976’s Calling Card and 1978’s Photo-Finish – Notes From San Francisco hits the mark more often from start-to-finish than anything else in the 70s for Rory besides 1973’s landmark Tatoo. Gallagher is at his barstool philosopher best here, a gruffer cousin to fellow Irishman and bittersweet tragedian Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy). Much of this rattles and grinds, but “Wheels Within Wheels” is one of his finest slow numbers and even had the potential to puncture American FM-radio in the era alongside the tailored ennui of Fleetwood Mac and Gerry Rafferty. Elsewhere, there’s the Latin horns meet slide licks of “Brute Force & Ignorance,” the gypsy musician’s lament “Overnight Bag,” and electric violin perforated “Mississippi Sheiks,” strings courtesy of Joe O’Donnell (East of Eden, Mushroom) – the late, great, very missed Martin Fiero also contributes sax to two cuts. Yes, there are plenty of electric guitar workouts but unlike a lot of shredders, particularly of his generation, there’s not a lot of fat and more than a dollop of light-fingered delicacy and eloquent, carefully chosen sting, these last two traits displayed beautifully on the “Little Wing”-esque album closer “Fuel To The Fire.”
This posthumous release is bettered still by a second disc containing a live trio show captured at The Old Waldorf in San Francisco in December 1979. Gallagher had dropped his keyboard player after seeing the Sex Pistols burn down Winterland and attacks staples like “Shinkicker” and “Tattoo’d Lady” with feral energy. The rhythm section of Gerry McAvoy (bass) and Ted McKenna stay close to Gallagher’s wild movements from blazing opener “Follow Me” to the closing frenetic, lighthearted cover of Huey P. Smith’s “Sea Cruise.” There’s a lot of reasons many ardent Rory aficionados consider true Gallagher to be live Gallagher, and this set adds more heft to their argument, though I think he’s nearly equally lethal and sometimes more visibly tender in his studio work. Whichever setting you prefer, there’s much to enjoy on Notes From San Francisco, a rare archival gem that holds its own with the official catalog.