Monday, February 07, 2011

Gary Moore: The Sky is Crying

This afternoon, I watched a concert DVD of Gary Moore playing his signature instrumental "The Loner" and began to sob uncontrollably. It's the first time I have cried in years.

Gary was found dead in a hotel room in Spain where he was on holiday with his girlfriend. It appears that he passed on in his sleep. The Belfast-born guitarist—one of the instrument's greatest players—was just 58.

He was my hero.

Today's news headlines of Gary's death today have largely focused Gary's career to his brief stints as a sideman in Thin Lizzy. But Gary Moore's dynamic and diverse career, which included 20 solo studio albums in addition to projects with bands including Colloseum II and BBM, was so much more than that.

Only a handful of professional guitarists—Steve Hackett, Jeff Beck, and Danny Gatton come to mind—can boast the sheer stylistic versatility of Gary Moore. During his wide-ranging career, Gary ticked off just about every block in modern music's Periodic Table of Elements, including blues, heavy metal, progressive rock, pop, jazz-rock, punk, R&B, psychedelic and even dance music. Indeed, Greg Lake once commented that the world had no idea how good a country player he is. (Gary did, eventually, reveal his country chops on a couple of songs on the recent blues albums, Old New Ballads Blues and Close As You Get.)

Only a guitarist of Gary's stylistic elasticity could boast cameos on records by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Beach Boys, The Traveling Wilburys and Dr. Strangely Strange.

(Other notable musicians Gary played and collaborated with during his career include—deep breath—John Bonham, BB King, Mick Jagger, Albert Collins, Ozzy Obsorne, Paul Rodgers, Mo Foster, George Harrison Albert King, Jack Bruce, Jim Capaldi, Jimmy Nail, Gary Husband, Darrin Mooney, Trilok Gurtu, Snowy White, John Mayall, Vicki Brown, Don Airey, Cozy Powell, Otis Taylor, Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, Greg Lake, Glenn Hughes.)

Yet, during his foray into each musical areas, Gary Moore remained utterly distinctive. Case in point: When I saw the movie Evita in the cinema, I remember hearing the orchestral introduction to one of the musical numbers and immediately recognizing Gary's guitar sound even though I had no foreknowledge that he was part of Madonna's project.

As a guitarist, Gary had fingers that a stenographer would envy. Young acolytes such as Vivian Campbell, Slash, Joe Bonamassa, and Randy Rhodes tied their fingers in knots in their early attempts to copy his fretboard gymnastics. Gary explained that his high-tensile digits came from learning to play on a guitar with high-action strings. (Despite being left-handed, Gary learned to play the guitar right-handed.) Indeed, whenever Gary sustained a note (most famously, his showstopping note hold during "Parisienne Walkways"), he didn't use a tremolo arm—it was all in the strength of his fingers.

That formidable technique landed Gary a job with Jon Hiseman's Colosseum II. Gary had already shown great promise with three albums with the short-lived pscyhedelic blues power trio Skid Row—which he joined at age 16—and 1973's Grinding Stone with The Gary Moore Band. But little could have prepared listeners for Gary Moore's scorching jazz-rock guitar work on the Colosseum II albums Strange New Flesh, War Dance, and Electric Savage nipped on the heels of the likes of John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck. (Fun fact: Almost two decades ago, Gary spent 40 minutes jamming in a hotel room with Beck following a joint interview for VOX magazine. If only someone had been there to roll tape....)

Moore's first proper solo album, Back on the Streets, displayed Gary's diverse styles, from the gorgeous balladry of "Don't Believe a Word" to the punk of "Fanatical Fascists" to the dizzying guitar vertigo of "What Would You Rather Be or a Wasp." Yet despite enjoying a UK top 10 hit single with "Parisienne Walkways," Gary's career fluctuated between stints in Thin Lizzy (his playing dominates the band's last great record, Black Rose) as well as trying to start a band of his own called G Force. Gary even played a few shows with a short-lived supergroup, Greedy Bastards, consisting of Phil Lynott and Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols! Confusing matters further, Gary joined Greg Lake's band during the early 1980s. (Moore's interpretation of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" on the King Biscuit live album is astonishing.)

Finally, in 1982, Corridors of Power relaunched his solo career with as a heavy metal rocker with a nice sideline in radio-friendly rock ballads. The even more impressive Victims of the Future followed in 1984 and established the guitarist as one of the most exciting players of the day. Indeed, Gary's cover version of The Yardbirds' "Shapes of Things," features one of his greatest solos, starting off with blink-and-you'll miss it speedy runs and one-handed tapping and ending with slow, bluesy licks. (See the live version, below, and feel free to have a chuckle at the stage clothes—not even Lady Gaga would be caught dead wearing that red leather boiler suit.)

Then, mainstream success. Run for Cover, featuring the hit singles "Out in the Fields" and "Empty Rooms (1985)," saw Gary return to the charts. Given that he had "the face of a welder's bench," as Ozzy Osbourne uncharitably described it, Moore was an unlikely figure to enjoy top 40 success in an era of handsome pop idols.

No matter, Gary's keen pop instincts grew from strength to strength with his rock masterpiece, Wild Frontier, an album that drew musical inspiration from his Celtic roots. Though 1989's After the War expanded on Gary's Celtic rock and created a new benchmark of emotive playing in a cover version of Roy Buchanan's "The Messiah Will Come Again," Gary had grown bored of hard rock, let alone wearing spandex.

As a breather, Gary decided to do a fun hobby project of classic blues songs and a few originals. The resulting album, Still Got the Blues (1990), that became his biggest success and his career-defining masterpiece. Featuring luminaries such as Albert Collins, Albert King, George Harrison, and pianist Nicky Hopkins, the album combined Gary's fiery playing ("Oh Pretty Woman," "All Your Love") and pop-hook instincts ("Walking By Myself," "Texas Strut"). Its emotive ballads, including "Midnight Blues" and the title track radiated a newfound grace and elegance. Who would have imagined that Gary could pull off a mournful deep-blues track such as "As the Years Go Passing By"?

During Gary Moore's third decade of recording as a reconstituted bluesman, he adopted a new philosophy: less is Moore. You can hear that feather-light, finger-picked touch on his cover of "Jumping at Shadows" or "The Hurt Inside" on 1992's superb After Hours. By the release of 1995's Blues for Greeny, the Irishman had distilled his playing to a minimalist style imbued with an amber-hued guitar tone reminiscent of that of his own hero, Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green.

Like any of the greats, Gary Moore was instantly recognizable no matter what make of guitar he played, whether it was the Charvels he favored during the mid 1980s or the legendary '59 Les Paul that Green gave Gary for a mere 100 Pounds early in his career. (That tone was so remarkable that when Kirk Hammett was recording Metallica's Black album, the guitarist went to great lengths to find gadgetry that would help him emulate Moore's sound on Still Got the Blues.)

Yet, for all his technique and rich tone, Gary's greatest gift was his uncanny ability to transfer his emotions to six strings. Few guitarists can claim the exquisite feel Gary had. It was an innate ability that he displayed early on in his career when he guested on Thin Lizzy's ballad, "Still In Love With You" and would continue to display on famous ballads such as "Parisienne Walkways," "Still Got the Blues," and "The Loner."

Gary's taciturn expressions on his album covers belied his soulful and romantic side. One can only speculate how Gary tapped into such a deep well or rich emotion but one thing's for sure, he knew plenty about heartbreak having been through two failed marriages. As Gary put it in the liner notes to his Ballads & Blues compilation in 1994, "These songs are for the most part, true stories. Some of them are about me and some of them are about other people." (For Gary's own biographical account of his life, read the lyrics to 1997's "Business as Usual.")

But no matter what he played, Gary's solos were always innately melodic, memorable and inventive, ranging from aggressive passages to tender caresses. (I've posted a few videos throughout this blog entry.) And his playing was so inventive, too. For example, check out the guitar outro of "Looking for Somebody" on Blues for Greeny, the extended version of "All Time Low" on the reissue of After Hours, the sci-fi blues of "Bring My Baby Back" on A Different Beat, or the thrilling improvisation of "Texas Strut" on Live at Montreux 1990.

But so much for guitar solos. Many a guitarist can claim to be a high-flying ace during the middle eight and outro. But the truth is that many lead guitarists struggle to write songs. Gary Moore was a gifted songwriter with an ear for a good pop tune right up until the end. Whether he was creating an electronica-oriented record such as the hugely underrated A Different Beat (1999), the modern rock of Dark Days in Paradise (1997) penning tunes with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker "don't call it Cream" project, BBM, Gary's work is consistently filled with memorable songs. (BBM's single "Where in the World" deserved to have been a hit.)

Indeed, Moore penned several hit singles, including "Empty Rooms," "Over the Hills and Far Away," "Out in the Fields," and "Cold Day in Hell." His albums are consistently filled with memorable songs, elevating Gary from the ranks of many other lead guitarists.

Gary's final decade was, alas, inconsistent even though there were many moments of greatest. The commercial failure of A Different Beat led the guitarist Back to the Blues in 2001. It was a good record yet it felt rushed and lacked the polish of previous blues albums. Worse, the blues-based hard-rock of Scars, named after Gary's newly formed power trio with longtime drummer Darrin Mooney (Primal Scream) and bassist Cass Lewis (Skunk Anansie), was a half-baked album whose fiery improvised jams couldn't compensate for its lack of great tunes. (Honorable exception: The Hendrix-y "World Keep Turning Round.")

The nadir of that period was 2004's Power of the Blues which, with the exception of the title track and the riveting "There's a Hole," felt rote and uninspired. It seemed as if Moore, now no longer a commercial force after being dropped by Virgin, was rushing to record albums at a rate of one per year to stay afloat. Result? Too much filler. Gary even sold the Peter Green Les Paul for monetary reasons.

Fortunately, Gary's last three studio records pulled him back from the brink. Each of them boast several outstanding songs that would merit inclusion on a future "Best Of" compilation. A soulful vocal and majestic solo at the end of the horn-driven track called "You Know My Love" is one of the many delights on 2006's Old New, Ballads Blues. Then, too, there's the Peter Green-influenced tone on the dusky, slow ballad "Evenin'" on 2007's Close at You Get.

On those late albums, Moore also explored acoustic blues, country-flecked blues, and even the harmonica. He was still penning some great originals, too, such as "Ain't Nobody," "Nowhere Fast," "Hard Times," and "Umbrella Man." "Preacher Man Blues" (featuring Otis Taylor) from 2008's fine Bad For You Baby is so catchy that it oughta be outlawed by the World Health Organization. During his final years, Gary also made a several memorable appearances on the Otis Taylor albums Definition of a Circle, Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs, and Clovis People, Vol. 3 and the two bluesmen—who were good friends—toured together fairly regularly.

In the final year of his life, Gary returned to the road with a rock band (featuring his invaluable 1980s colleague Neil Carter on keyboards) and debuted three typically memorable new songs—"Where Are You Now?," "Oh Wild One," and "Days of Heroes"—intended for a future Celtic Rock album. It's likely that those songs will appear in an imminent DVD + CD release, Live at Montreux 2010. (Also coming this year: White Knuckles and Blue Moods, a documentary about Gary that includes fresh interviews with the guitarist.) Gary had also been working on one more blues album that had been scheduled for release late last year and was then pushed back until fall of 2011. Alas, neither the blues album nor the celtic-rock album progressed further than demo recordings. One can only imagine what Gary might have created over the coming decade. He died far too young, much like his Irish friends Phil Lynott and Rory Gallagher.

As great as he was in the studio, Gary's playground was the stage where he a consistently exciting performer with perhaps the ultimate guitar-face grimace. I'll fondly remember many of the great shows I saw—the last was a London show in 2001—and cherish my brief meetings with the man afterward.

Sadly, Gary never did become a particularly famous guitarist in the United States even though he was a legend in Europe. Despite many tours of North America during the 1980s, he failed to break through in a big way. Moore's biggest career folly, perhaps, was failing to capitalize on the MTV rotation and radio play for Still Got the Blues, which sold over 3 million copies worldwide and is widely credited for sparking a blues boom in the early part of that decade. Though Gary did appear on Late Night, reportedly at the request of David Letterman who was enamored with the album (Gary was backed by Paul Shaffer's house band for the show), a US tour failed to materialize. By the time Gary reappeared to promote his After Hours album with shows in New York and Los Angeles (the latter excerpted for Gary's seminal Live Blues album), the momentum was lost. If Gary Moore had managed to crack North America, he might have stood a chance of being remembered for those occasional "greatest guitarists" polls in Rolling Stone and various American guitar magazines.

Ultimately, that means little to me or Gary's many fans across the world, let alone Gary's longtime guitar tech, Graham Tilly or Gary's children, Gus, Jack, Lily, and Saoirse. Those who have heard him can never forget him. Ever since I first heard Gary at age 12 in 1985, his music has resonated deep within my heart and been on near constant rotation in my mental jukebox. I own literally everything that Gary ever recorded and those songs and albums will continue to inspire me and move me over the coming month, as I revisit his entire catalog, and for the rest of my life.

Gary Moore, I love you. Thank you for enriching my life.

Update: 3/21: Esteemed rock journalist Ted Drozdowski has written the best tribute I've seen to Gary on Gibson's website. Read it here.

An excerpt of the lyrics from Gary's "Nothing's the Same" (1992).

Another day goes passing by.
I sit alone and wonder why.
Sometimes it's hard, but I will try
To live my life without you.

You're in my heart, you're in my dreams.
You're everywhere or so it seems.
So many times I've heard that song.
Hold back the tears, pretend you're strong.

Another day goes slowly by.
I sit alone and wonder why.
I think of you, I start to cry.
Nothing's the same without you.


  1. A great article indeed n' perfect tribute to great legend Moore. Am also in shock since I heard the news. Hard to believe he is no more.

    Anyways, he'll always be ruling hearts of original rock-worshipers like u n' me but certainly its a big irreplaceable loss.

    Rock in peace, Gary!

    ps- adding ur blog to my fb account, btw wondering if u r there on facebook.

  2. Thank you Steve for your honest praise of our well beloved and very missed Gary!

  3. Billzeal@aol.com3:36 PM

    Thanks for the wonderful tribute to the great Gary Moore. You expressed just how I feel about him. I have felt so down and sad since the shocking moment of hearing of his death. He made the music he wanted to play. He did it his way. He was one of a kind and the loss of him truly hurts. I do get comfort hearing from someone who feels the same.
    Thank you very much
    Bill S
    Anaheim CA USA

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Carlo, Bill, and Jit. The tribute was a labor of love.

    Jit, I'm actually a holdout on Facebook. but I am on Twitter at: steve_humphries

  5. Great post mate. I've been playing guitar for over 15 years and have an advanced diploma in popular and contemporary musics and still everytime I hear Gary's live version of Shapes of Things I think about hanging up my Strat and walking away! Gary Moore is right up there with Hendrix and SRV as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. He has always been and always will be my hero.

  6. Anonymous4:42 PM

    Check out the promo for the Gary Moore documentary: