Gary Moore: Spellbound By The Blues

Gary Moore playing live at the Beach of Pite-Havsbad, outside the city of Piteå in Sweden, July 2008.
(Photo credit: Tibban99.)

Guitarist Gary Moore, who passed away this weekend in his sleep at the young age of 58, was not an easy musician to pigeonhole. While many listeners in the Eighties such as myself learned about the Irish rocker through the world of heavy rock, whether it was through energized albums like Corridors Of Power and Victims Of The Future or through his earlier work with the legendary Thin Lizzy and prog/jazz rockers Colosseum, Moore was a bluesman at heart. Just listen to the slew of blues-based albums he released over the last 20 years, many of which had “blues” in the title, and that is obvious. Regardless, he was a very talented six-string slinger whose influences ranged from fusion to Celtic music, and certainly one of the more intriguing conversations I have held over my lengthy music journalism career. Sadly, Moore had not toured the United States since the early ’90s when I conducted this interview in the fall of 2007.

The following Q&A runs 2,600 words; it was edited into a 1,500-word story for Goldmine magazine and published in their December 7, 2007 issue. In memory of Gary Moore’s passing, here is our entire conversation for that story, which covered everything from his humble pre-Thin Lizzy days and his thoughts on their reformed line-up through to his radio DJ stint and his love for the blues.

Watching your 2005 concert DVD, Gary Moore and Friends – One Night In Dublin: A Tribute To Phil Lynott, I was was amazed at the number of young people in the audience.
That’s just amazing because they were kids, but they looked like the kids that used to come see Lizzy in the ’70s. They have the same hairstyle and T-shirts and everything. They never saw any of us guys play together before, so it must have been really weird for them to see any of us together on stage because it doesn’t really happen anymore.

Thin Lizzy has still been touring for years…

“In those days Phil was so domesticated he could really look after himself. He was like our mother, man. He would wake us up in the morning and go, ‘Right! Here’s your fucking breakfast. You better eat it.'”

How do you feel about them still touring?
For me there’s no Thin Lizzy without Phil. It’s just ludicrous for me. I understand why they’re doing it, but it’s a strange thing. If they had [guitarists] Brian Robertson and Scott [Gorham] in the lineup, I’d feel better about it. But [drummer] Brian Downey even left because he couldn’t stand it anymore, and he’s playing with me now. There are more of the the original members in my band now than there are in Lizzy.

Who is left in Thin Lizzy at this point?
It’s got Scott Gorham and John Sykes, and you really only have Scott from the classic line up. Or any of the classic line-ups, you know what I mean?

We’re in an era where so many classic artists are still going, even longer than I thought they’d be. How much longer do you see yourself doing this?
I wouldn’t be able to answer that question. We played with B.B. King last year on his farewell UK tour. We did five big arena shows with him over here, and he’s in his eighties. He’s really good. He’s always done it, and he never stopped. He’s still credible.

You still love the blues and play with a very snarling style. How do you keep reinvigorating yourself in a genre that’s been done to death by certain people?
I was doing a radio show for this station in London called Planet Rock, and they asked me to do a blues program for six weeks, and I did six two-hour blues shows for them. I found some great stuff for them by researching for the show because I had to keep going further and further back all the time. You can come up with the first week’s program, which is like 30 songs, straight off the top of your head, but after that you have to start digging in a little bit. It can’t all be guitar players. You listen to the female blues singers, and you go back to the country blues singers and listen to Leadbelly and Sun House. You go back to all the original guys and find this amazing well of wonderful material that I didn’t even know that I possessed because I hadn’t listened to it for so long. I found some great songs for the album [Close As You Get], and I got into areas on this album that I had not gotten into before.

Moore's studio album from 2007.

        For one thing, I did an acoustic track, the Son House song “Sundown,” which ends the record, and I had never done anything like that before. That was a big challenge for me because you’re really putting your balls on the line for that. You’ve gotta do it right and be respectful of the heritage of that song. That was a big challenge. I did it several times before I was happy with it; and on things like “Evening” by Jimmy Witherspoon, which I found through our drummer Brian Downey. We were going to do “I Put A Spell On You,” but we just realized it was a really corny song for anyone to do these days. It’s been done to death, right? Brian showed us the song, and we thought it was a great song. I remembered him playing that when I was sixteen in his band in Dublin called Sugar Shack.
        We nailed it on the spot. We just did our own version completely in our own way. Jimmy Witherspoon’s version is much more upbeat and jazzy, and we did a very melancholy version. We did it with a very spooky kind of sound. I had to learn to sing more behind the beat, almost like in a jazz style to make it sound right. Even the guitar solo on “30 Days, ” which is Chuck Berry’s guitar solo, is like a rockabilly solo, which again is something that I’m not known for. So there were a lot of new little challenges for me there this time. That’s how you keep it fresh, by throwing yourself into stuff you haven’t done before.

You have played with so many people – B.B. King, Albert Collins, George Harrison, Albert King. Is there any dream jam session you’ve yet to do?
That’s a tough one. A lot of guys I’d like to jam with are gone. I’d like to play with Buddy Guy. I’ve kind of played with him on stage, but they were a lot of other people up there. We’ve talked about doing something. I still like Carlos Santana very much. He talked about doing a track with me also. It would probably be nice to do an album of guests really, just have a whole album with one guest on each track, in all different styles and see what happens. Again, it would keep things fresh, because you’d be changing your set up every day and trying new things out. That could be fun.

Jack Bruce guested on one of your songs.
We had a band together with Ginger Baker called BBM in the middle of the ’90s. I’ve also played on his albums as well. He’s a hero of mine.

I heard the Colosseum reunion happened recently in Europe. Was this Colosseum I or II?
That was the original band. They’re still playing as well. They’re very good, too.

I learned about you through your hard rock albums in the early ’80s. Do you think that side of you will ever come out again?
To be honest with you, by the end of the ’80s I was kind of sick of the whole thing, and I really didn’t feel like I belonged there anymore. I used to go in the dressing room before the gig during the After The War tour, and I was playing blues to myself all the time. I often find the best way is just to go where the music takes you. One night Bob Daisley, our bass player, walked in and said I should do a blues album and it would probably be the biggest thing I ever did. I just laughed, “Yeah right, ha ha.” And I did it. He was right, and it worked. [laughs] I never would have believed it at the time, and I think the record company was just indulging me at the time. Of course, the whole thing got bigger and bigger, and they were obviously very pleased with the results.

“The thing with terrorism is — I grew up in Belfast, and I’ve had arguments about this in various places — you can’t get rid of it just by bombing and killing people.”

Your material in the ’80s still came from a harder blues angle.
It’s always been there. There have always been songs where that’s come through. My favorite stuff in that era is the Irish influenced stuff because I’m Irish. After Phil died, when I did the Wild Frontier album in ’87, that was my way of dealing with him passing away. I was out of the country when it all happened, and when I got back I got stuck into writing that album, and a lot of it was dedicated to him. That was the best way for me to deal with it, just throw into that and think of him through the music and honor him through the music. I think the melodies were stronger at that time, and even the song on After The War, “Blood Of Emeralds,” I was very proud of that because I like the way it incorporated all of these different influences and different rhythms. It was like a mini-epic in the tradition of “Black Rose” from Thin Lizzy. I don’t know if some of the earlier stuff was really me. I thought it was at the time, but I’m not so sure when I look back at.

Thin Lizzy: One of the first interracial rock bands.
Moore at left.

What do you think of Nightwish’s cover of “Over The Hills And Far Away”?
It kind of sounded like a karaoke version, didn’t it? It’s like our backing tracks with a girl singing it. They didn’t really change it very much. The same solo, the same kind of sound, it was almost a bit of a clone really. I think if you’re going to cover something, at least try and make it your own, but that wasn’t what it was about. They knew that song was a big hit, and they knew that they could have a hit with it, which they did. It was a big hit all over again for them, so it served its purpose for them, I guess. It’s nice when people cover your songs. It’s flattering in a way, if they do a good version of it.

What did you think of the way that Metallica tackled “Whisky In The Jar”?
…It was ok. It’s a very different song from even the way Thin Lizzy did it. It’s an old folk song.

The blues seemed to disappear the ’90s, but it seems to have made a comeback in rock and roll lately.
I agree, because even in England there are more blues festivals here this year. There are a couple of young new guys, including one named Max Schofield, who is pretty good. He plays in that Albert Collins style. He’s not a rock guy who got into the blues. He just really likes the blues. He’s got a cool little trio with a drummer and a guy on Hammond who plays bass on it. It’s a really cool little sound and very funky as well. There’s another guy, something Parker, and he’s pretty good as well. He’s a good singer and does some nice slow blues stuff. He’s opened for us a couple of times in different places in Europe. Those are two guys right off the top of my head. I’m sure there a lot of guys that I don’t know, and there are all these little blues gigs springing up again. I think there’s definitely a resurgence in it.

You’ve written many songs about the political strife in Ireland. How do you feel about what’s been going on there now?
There are so many different layers of those kinds of groups. The I.R.A. have decommissioned their arms apparently, but then you have the splinter groups that break away. I was just over there. Brian Downey was traveling up from Dublin on the train to Belfast, and there was a bomb scare. They took people off the train and put them on a bus because they thought they were going to blow up the railway, so there are still people out there waiting to have a go. The thing with terrorism is — I grew up in Belfast, and I’ve had arguments about this in various places — you can’t get rid of it just by bombing and killing people. When the I.R.A. attacked the British mainland by bombing Canary Wharf and various pubs, they [British] didn’t bomb Belfast. They occupied it for a while, but in the end they had to talk to these guys, and they had to bring them into the political process. That’s the only way that they could deal with it, and that’s the only thing that’s worked at all.

“One night Bob Daisley, our bass player, walked in and said I should do a blues album and it would probably be the biggest thing I ever did. I just laughed, ‘Yeah right, ha ha.’ And I did it. He was right, and it worked.”

What has been the most profound musical moment of your life?
There have been too many really. One night that stands out was on the Still Got The Blues tour, and I was standing between Albert King and Albert Collins, and I was looking over and thinking about how the album was really doing well and I was happy and playing my ass off. I was thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this. This is cool. This is what you’ve always dreamt of, and you’re here.” And also when I became friendly with George Harrison. We lived quite close together during the ’80s and ’90s. I did some work with him, I played with him at the Albert Hall, and he played with me at the Albert Hall. He gave me a song for Still Got The Blues, which he sang and played on. I played on the Traveling Wilburys with him. That was a great time as well, because to be around somebody who I had been listening to since I was about 11 and who I looked up to so much, just to become a friend of that person and have an insight into how they work, and play guitar and record with them, was quite amazing to me. This is a Beatle we’re talking about, you know what I mean?

Are there any stories about Phil Lynott that we haven’t heard yet?
I knew him from when I was 16, and he was the lead singer in Skid Row when I joined, for anyone who doesn’t know that. He didn’t play bass at the time.  He was the stand-up singer.  We became friends right quickly because we were the naughty boys in the band, and the other guys were very different from us.  We stayed out together a lot and would go out at night and get into all sorts of mischief. He got thrown out of the band because he had a problem with his throat, and then Phil and I lived together with the singer from another band. When you’re living together in one room, your beds are all in the one room, and you have a kitchen and bathroom if you’re lucky. So the three of us lived in this one room for quite awhile.
        In those days Phil was so domesticated he could really look after himself. He was like our mother, man. He would wake us up in the morning and go, “Right! Here’s your fucking breakfast. You better eat it.” You just wanted to puke from the night before because we were out drinking, but he’d be up for everybody. He’d be down in the market and would buy himself old jeans and sew them himself. I know I’m dispelling his myth, but it’s very important that people realize that he wasn’t always the way he came across. He used to sew them and take them in so they’d be real tight on his real skinny legs. He’d go over to some girl’s house and steal all these trousers from her Mum because we had no money. One of us could take the bus into town while the other two guys would walk three or four miles to get to town. The first guy who got in would have to go to the bar and meet somebody we knew and get a round of drinks set up for us right before we got there, and that’s how we lived. We would eat cereal with water because we didn’t have any milk.
        We went all through all the fun times together. [laughs] It was fun, you know? Nobody is complaining. We were having a great time. At that age it doesn’t matter.

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