Gerry McAvoy chats with Kevin Cooper about his band, Band Of Friends, how he nearly became a Solicitor, winning a European Blues Award and his forthcoming appearance at The Great British Rhythm And Blues Festival in Colne.
Gerry McAvoy is an Irish blues rock guitarist who amongst other things is known for his 25 year long friendship and professional association with Rory Gallagher between 1970 and 1991. After playing with Rory for 21 years, McAvoy moved on, and joined Nine Below Zero.
In December 2011 he performed his last gig (to date) with Nine Below Zero in Leicester, at a venue called ‘The Musician’. He then formed ‘Gerry McAvoy’s Band Of Friends’. In May 2014 they performed at The Flowerpot in Derby for a celebration of the music of Rory Gallagher and were supported by British acoustic blues songwriter, Matt Woosey.
Having penned two books about his experiences, he confirms that after this current tour, they are going back into the studio to work on a new album.
This is what he had to say to Kevin Cooper when he caught up with him at his home in France.
Mr McAvoy good afternoon.
Hi Kevin how are you doing?
I’m fine thank you, how are you?
I’m doing pretty good actually thank you.
So how is life treating you?
So far, so good Kevin. I am currently enjoying myself playing with the Band Of Friends with Ted (McKenna) and Marcel (Scherpenzeel) which is great fun. We are gigging away and have just played a bunch of festivals throughout this summer. This week we are playing at the Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival up in Colne.
You mention Colne, are you looking forward to playing there?
Absolutely Kevin, it’s always great fun up there.
You have played the Festival before haven’t you?
Yes I have Kevin, in fact the Band Of Friends played their very first gig in the UK up in Colne at the Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival back in 2011, I believe it was. I have also played there quite a few times with Nine Below Zero.
I was lucky to catch you at Butlins in Skegness a couple of years ago now and I was totally blown away.
Oh that’s very kind of you, thank you very much Kevin.
I got to interview Marcel after the gig and what a nice, polite, young man he is.
Yes, he’s a nice lad. I am teaching him well (laughter).
But totally different when he gets up on stage, he’s an animal (laughter).
(Laughter) Yes I know what you mean Kevin but Rory (Gallagher) was the same. He was very introverted off stage but completely the opposite when he went on stage you know. I think it’s an adrenaline thing; a lot of musicians are like that. Actually a lot of entertainers are like that too.
On the subject of musicians, were you always going to be a musician?
It was always there, yes. However, when I left school at 16 I was working in a Solicitor’s office and I was planning on becoming a Solicitor at one stage. I was playing music at the same time so it was a choice between one or the other, and I took the musical route. Hence you have it.
The right choice I think.
Hopefully (hysterical laughter). Well at this stage of the game I can’t say it wasn’t (laughter).
Who has inspired you?
Initially it was The Beatles really. I grew up with The Beatles and my sister was a big fan. Eventually the man who became my brother-in-law, my sister’s boyfriend at the time, turned me onto Elvis Presley, Del Shannon, you know all of the rock and roll of the time, people like Buddy Holly. He would bring all of these albums round all the time, and at the time I was only ten years old. I would listen to all of this stuff. And then a friend of mine bought the John Mayall album with Eric Clapton; the famous Beano album as it’s called now, and I listened to that.
After hearing that album, I started to delve into where the music had come from and I found Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and so on. And the inspiration came form that; discovering different types of music and obviously this was the 1960’s and the Blues Boom was happening at that time with John Mayall, Chicken Shack, Cream and funnily enough Taste with Rory. So it was all sort of happening at the time.
Paul McCartney inspired me as a bass player, and also Willie Dixon and Jett Harris from The Shadows. So many, many influences Kevin you know. There are many people who have both influenced and inspired me.
Was there an actual eureka moment for you to form Band Of Friends?
Not as such Kevin because I was playing with Nine Below Zero when I left Rory in 1991 and I stayed with them for 20 years. But towards 2006 I delved into my old record collection and there was the stuff which I had played with Rory which I hadn’t heard for years. I listened to the stuff again and thought “Christ this stuff is great” and there were some great songs. I know that there are a lot of bands out there doing Rory’s stuff and they do it very well but I just thought that I would like to do it again. I thought that I would love to play the songs that I was involved in, that I recorded and that I had played for all of those years.
Obviously to do it properly would mean getting the right musicians. I was very lucky to find out that Ted McKenna wasn’t actually working in music at that stage. He was at the time lecturing at Glasgow University on the music business. He wasn’t actually playing in a band. I think that the last thing that he had done was with the Michael Schenker band which was quite a few years ago, so Ted was available. I had met Marcel in 2007 and when there was a Rory Festival North of Amsterdam, I got a call asking me if I wanted to play at it. I was always wary of those type of things as I had done a couple of them in the past, but I had obviously checked out Marcel on YouTube and I thought “this guy is good”. And that was it.
Then in 2011 I decided to leave Nine Below Zero and I spoke to the two guys, Ted and Marcel, asking them if they fancied giving it a whirl and seeing what happens. Thankfully they were both up for it, and we have been doing it ever since. And it has been going great. We’ve decided to branch out a little bit and we have released a mini CD and a DVD of our own music which have been very well received.
So when you played with Marcel he was the one?
He was the first one that came into mind when I was thinking of doing this Kevin. And obviously Ted doesn’t even need an introduction; his CV is as long as your arm. He has played with everybody and anybody. Ted has played with Gary Moore, Rory (Gallagher), The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Michael Schenker, Greg Lake, you name it and Ted’s done it (laughter). He’s a great drummer and its fantastic playing with the guy.
And you all fit together nicely, it just sounds as it should be.
When we actually decided to do this thing together, we obviously rehearsed and luckily enough Marcel’s father owns quite a famous club in Amsterdam called MelloMello. We rehearsed in there for a couple of days and everything gelled; there was a certain chemistry between the three of us which works. So thank heavens that it does work (laughter).
In 2013 you won the European Blues Award for the best live band. How did that feel?
It was actually quite pleasant (laughter). It was nice to be voted the best live band in Europe Kevin. It was nice to win it absolutely, it was great.
After all of this time, did you ever envisage that Rory’s music would still be as relevant today as it was back in the day?
Yes, the reason being as I said before. When I started to listen to the songs again, I realised just how good they were, because without the songs there is nothing. And you have to remember that Rory was a very good songwriter. He had an amazing talent as a guitar player but he was also a bloody good songwriter and those songs still stand to this day.
You have recorded a version of Rory’s ‘If I Had A Reason’ on your EP, why this song?
It’s a song that I recorded with Rory way, way back in the Marquee Studios in London for the Blueprint album. It was one of those songs that I always thought was a beautiful song, and we never actually played it live. I just thought that it was a song that should have an airing again. The way that we have done it is slightly different, it was more acoustic and it was more Country on the original recording. Also I thought that it was quite poignant as well. If you listen to the lyrics they can be taken in different ways you know. The lyrics seemed to fit at the time with what was going on, with obviously losing Rory, so I think that it was quite poignant.
Does it surprise you just how warm Rory’s fans are towards Band Of Friends. They seem to have embraced you which is really nice.
It is Kevin, although it’s also a difficult thing as I’m sure that there are a couple out there who aren’t too keen on it (laughter), on what I’m doing. But not too many thank heavens. I think that if you do it honestly and truthfully and the band plays well, then that’s what it’s all about. And hopefully Rory would sign the petition too so to speak. So far so good.
I have actually written that down, “honest and true to Rory’s memory and not a cheap tribute band” which sums it up I think.
That’s very kind of you Kevin and that’s great. There are a lot of good tribute bands out there and there are a lot of not so good tribute bands. I prefer not to classify myself as a tribute band because I was one of the musicians who helped to shape the songs. To me it is like a celebration of what we did with Rory. It is also great to have those tribute bands out there keeping the music alive; that’s quite important as well.
Yes, I agree, providing that they stay true to the original.
Yes Kevin, absolutely. Most tribute bands will try to play the songs verbatim, note for note, which is fine. However we try to steer away from that a little bit because we all have our own individuality. If it was Rory it would have been different every night anyway. I keep telling Marcel that he has got to put some of Marcel into the songs, which he does and people accept it, which is good. I think that people enjoy that we do it that way and that we don’t try to do it note for note you know.
What is nice about it is that they are Rory’s songs but you have made them your own.
Well that’s good to hear Kevin, that’s very kind.
You are touring throughout 2014, so what next after that?
There is nothing up on any websites yet as we are holding everything back until September because 2014 is pretty solid already. Funnily enough we are actually going back into the studio after Colne. We are going up to our little hideaway up in Cumbria for a week to work on some more new songs which we have been doing anyway. We have been working on some new material over the years so we are going to go up to Cumbria after Colne and try to finalise those which is a prefect time to do it. Hopefully it doesn’t rain up in Cumbria (laughter).
Well I really do hope that all goes well with everything that you do.
That’s great Kevin.
I’m photographing and reviewing the gig at Colne on Friday so I will just say thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been a real pleasure.
It’s no problem Kevin. I look forward to seeing you on Friday.