by James Fleming
Risky business; taking on a legacy as beloved as Rory Gallagher’s. Countless tribute bands have tried, and pub bands the world over stumble through the likes of ‘Bullfrog Blues,’ usually to no avail. But, this is no ordinary tribute band. This is a celebration of Rory’s music. This is Band of Friends, featuring Gerry McAvoy, Ted McKenna and the magnificent Marcel Scherpenzeel. And if you could see the show they would later put on upstairs at Monroe’s Live (read the review here), you would know they are undoubtedly the men for the job.
Gerry McAvoy played with Rory throughout his entire solo career, and Ted McKenna played with him from 1978-81. If these guys say Marcel is “the closest guitarist to Rory you will ever hear,” which Gerry does, then Mr. Scherpenzeel must be the realest of deals.
“I reckon maybe 2007/2008 I got my record player,” says Gerry. “And I took all my old vinyl out,” included in this collection was all the records he had played on with Rory (14 albums in total) and the records that Ted played on. “I started listening to the songs, and I started thinking ‘these songs are great, they should be heard again’”. Gerry is well aware of the countless tribute bands on the go at the moment, and he concedes that some of them do a good job, but he believed that; “to get the right musicians and really do it the way it was and the way we remember it,” the results would be truly awesome.
“I met Marcel roughly around the same time,” Gerry recalls. “We did a festival north of Amsterdam, in Holland. And Ted was lecturing at the college in Glasgow [North Glasgow College], on music business. So we sort of met up, at a gig or something, I had spoken to you [Ted] and I mentioned to Ted; ‘y’know do you fancy putting this together and trying something?’ And I spoke to Marcel, and he was up for it.” And thus, the wheels were set in motion.
The first music session was held in Marcel’s father’s blues club in Amsterdam. After a few days, they knew the chemistry was right, and the show hit the road. “We’ve been doing it ever since!”
Gerry jokes that Marcel payed them the most cash for his position in Band of Friends. But seriously folks, it was the chemistry: “When we got together and rehearsed, y’know, I mean I’d played with Marcel, and he was good, I knew he was good. And it was just the chemistry that happened between the three of us in the rehearsals.” Gerry says the chemistry was instant, that they just gelled. Ted says: “When Gerry told me about Marcel, I trusted him. When I came over I met Marcel at the airport, we went into Amsterdam, the next day we had a rehearsal at the club. And from the first song we tried to play, I knew it was gonna work. ‘Cos I’ve worked with a helluva lot of guitar players and I know when it works and when it doesn’t”.
Marcel started playing guitar when he was twelve. And it was in his father’s record collection that he first came across Rory Gallagher. “It was Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Muddy Waters. But also records of Rory Gallagher. I think I was 14/15 years old when I heard the album Calling Card.” And it was this 1976 album that caught the young Dutchman’s ear. “The sound and how Rory was playing was really different than other guitar players and, for me, a lot of different styles that I really enjoy was in it, in the guitar. And I think it was ‘round that time that I was really interested in Rory Gallagher.”
Band of Friends stress that they are not a tribute band. rather, they are “a celebration of the music of Rory Gallagher.” Gerry states that the fact that Ted and himself were in the band sets them apart from the legions of tribute acts across the globe. “We were part of the machinery that made the music. All the songs that we do are songs that we either recorded with Rory, or played live with Rory. So, we’re part of the history. I mean, if people want to call it a tribute, that’s up to them, it’s fine.”
“We don’t copy the songs,” Ted explains. “We do what Rory did, which was play them, every night, differently.” Rory didn’t play the same solo every night. There was always room for improvisation. Which is why his live shows have gone down in history, and it’s what makes his live albums so thrilling. It’s this thrill, that excitement and passion, that sets Band of Friends apart as a celebration, rather than a tribute.
Their upcoming album features entirely original compositions. 11 tracks of brand new material coming your way at the end of September. “We’re actually in the final mixing and mastering stages now,” Gerry says. “We’re excited about it, and we hope everyone else is excited about it.” Watch this space.
Gerry played with Rory Gallagher for over 20 years, Ted played on no less than three of his albums. Including the live album Stage Struck. Listening to that album now, the chemistry between the three musicians is undeniable. Was that instantaneous, or did it come through years of hard graft?
“Whenever Rory decided to change bands, there was always a couple of drummers that were tried out for the situation. And we weren’t getting anywhere.”
Here, Ted takes over: “I went out with Alex Harvey [Ted previously played drums with The Sensational Alex Harvey Band]. And on a whim, I decided to go out and see him, he was goin’ out to see one of his old mates from Hamburg. So, I went out with him, and the first person we met was an engineer, who knew another engineer, that I knew, from Scotland; he was a drummer engineer called Colin Firley. So I said: ‘how’s Colin doing?’ And he said ‘oh, he’s working with Rory Gallagher, they’re going through a bunch of drummers, they can’t find a drummer.’” The next day Colin called Ted and asked would he like to come down and audition. And that was that.
However, this was not Ted’s first encounter with Rory. They first met when Ted was 17, when Ted’s first band supported Taste in Edinburgh. And he says that Rory hadn’t changed at all between the two encounters.
“That’s when I first met Rory. And when I met him at the recording studio, it was just the same guy. Same shirt, same desert boots, same jeans!”
Rory Gallagher remains something of a cult figure. He is intensely beloved by those who know his music. But, outside of dedicated fans, he remains unknown.
“I don’t think he gets the recognition he deserves,” Gerry says. “I was on a flight to Canada or something, and y’know when you listen to the music they have different things, and they had the Fender story. They talked about everybody, except for Rory! I couldn’t believe it!”
Rory’s road-worn Fender Stratocaster is of course iconic. Rarely was he seen on stage without it. So, to not mention him in a documentary about the brand of guitar that he helped popularise goes to show just how criminally underrated he is. As Gerry puts it: “people sort of associate the Fender Stratocaster with Jimi Hendrix, and Rory Gallagher.”
“Rory was not interested in being moulded by a record company,” Ted explains. “And when you do that, you alienate a record company. ‘Cos they want to sell you.”
Rory’s struggles with the music business are well documented. He refused to compromise: he wouldn’t put out a single, wouldn’t sell his soul to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. He was the epitome of a truly great artist.
Gerry agrees: “if you speak to musicians, there’s a completely different point of view about him, people admire him. From Johnny Marr to Gary Moore, to whoever. They all admire him.”
And whatever recognition Rory received, he never let it go to his head. When you listen to his playing, even now, it never sounds like he was showing off. It’s more like he was sharing his gift with the audience.
“Shy to a point, he was reserved. Introverted offstage extroverted onstage.” Gerry explains that among his friends, Rory wasn’t as shy as he was around strangers: “Rory wasn’t shy with us guys y’know. But he was very reserved, in a very Irish, sort of Catholic way.”
Rory was renowned the word over for his live shows and his live albums. Live in Europe was voted the number 1 Rory Gallagher album by readers of Mojo magazine. So to say he was “extroverted,” onstage, is an understatement. Marcel, however, says the pressure doesn’t really get to him.
“Yes and no. There will always be people who want to see a blueprint of Rory Gallagher when they come to Band of Friends. But, I don’t feel like that. ‘Cos I’m not Rory, I’m Marcel.”
And there you have it folks, straight from the horses mouth. This is not a note-perfect replica of Rory Gallagher’s music. This really is a celebration of his individuality and spirit. Just the way he would have wanted it.