On Friday, 28 August 1970, Rory Gallagher and his Taste band mates stood before what was quite literally an immeasurable crowd and delivered a set that was simply stunning. What’s Going On? Live at the Isle of Wight captures the essence of that performance beautifully. From the dazzling guitar intro to ‘What’s Going On?’ right through to the last notes of ‘Blister On The Moon,’ the band, by now a well oiled machine, exude a raw, primeval energy and a mastery of their craft that few bands then or now could match.
The fact that Rory — only twenty-two years old, but already a seasoned veteran of the stage — could stand in front of such a huge audience with nothing but his white Fender Telecaster and a slide for company, and perform ‘Gambling Blues,’ the way he did is mind-blowing. But Rory could do that, couldn’t he? Letting the band take a timeout, he could pick up an acoustic or a mandolin or whatever he felt like and still remain the focus of attention. It’s a rare gift. I caught Joe Bonamassa live a couple of years back and, although the show was great, the only low point was when he played acoustically without the band for a short set. We were treated to a cornucopia of fret-board acrobatics but no soul. It was all very contrived. The difference with Rory was that it always sounded so natural and it never interrupted the flow of his performance. His agenda was never to show off but to express his music as fully as possible and to do this he used whatever tools were necessary.
Taste was a musical phenomenon. Listening to them play, one could hear echoes of everything that went before and hints of what was yet to come. They had the tight, disciplined professionalism of a Jazz trio, the heart and soul of a blues band and the kind of fire that later ignited the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. In August 2005 I met two of the guitarists from Iron Maiden — Dave Murray and Janick Gers — in Bruxelles Pub in Dublin after a show they played in the RDS, and during a chat about musicians they admired, both axe men cited Rory Gallagher as a major influence. I wasn’t surprised, as I’ve always thought that Iron Maiden’s self-titled 1980 debut had echoes of Rory all over it. Indeed, Rory Gallagher’s influence on the sound of modern rock in general cannot be underestimated. Brian May of Queen readily admits that he got his sound from him. Rory kindly talked him through his live rig after a gig in London’s Marquee that Brian, then a very young Taste fan, attended. Since then the Vox AC 30 and treble booster pedal became permanent fixtures in Brian May’s setup.
Though showing no sign of it on the day, by the time Taste took the stage on the Isle of Wight in 1970, cracks had already appeared behind the scenes and soon afterwards they split. They were even reluctant to let photographer John Minihan take a band portrait backstage. It was only when bassist McCracken grabbed his band mates and jibed, ‘Come on guys, even if it’s the last one!’ that the photo was taken. As you can see in the picture heading this article, they look far from comfortable.
On the one hand, it’s a shame that the band didn’t get the opportunity to realise their full potential, but, on the other, it opened the door for Rory to go his own way and to become an artist in his own right. With the albums Rory Gallagher, Deuce, Blueprint and Tattoo released in the years succeeding the Taste break up, it became clear that Rory had drawn a line under the past and moved on. Out were those frivolous, jam-style interludes between guitarist and rhythm section and in came more focused songwriting with Rory centre stage and bass and drums providing a rock solid backdrop. The dynamic had changed and by the time Irish Tour ’74 hit the shelves, Rory Gallagher and his band were a blues–rock tour de force, and Taste a distant memory.
But what a memory it was. Taste was active during a period of intense cultural and musical transformation and the line-up at the Isle of Wight Festival, the largest musical event of its time, read like a roll call for anyone who mattered in popular music in 1970. What a thrill it must have been for the three young Taste members to play at such a monumental event alongside names like Jimi Hendrix and The Who. Though it was to be the band’s swansong, their performance sent waves across the music world and earned them their place in Rock history.
With the recent release of I’ll Remember, the Taste boxed set detailing the band’s history, and the film What’s Going On? Live at the Isle of Wight on DVD, it’s important to note that, although Taste represented a relatively short span in Rory Gallagher’s musical career, to his fans and fans of good music in general it was not without value, and sounds as good today, twenty-one years after Rory Gallagher’s passing, as it did all those years ago.
Great music never ages.