Rory Gallagher, a broken down Starship and Owsley’s acid tongue

Pete Bishop's Pittsburgh Press review of the Jefferson Starship/Rory Gallagher show.
Pete Bishop’s Pittsburgh Press review of the Jefferson Starship/Rory Gallagher show.

During my teen years in the late ‘70s, the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh was my musical mecca. From my first rock concert — Rush, Cheap Trick and Max Webster on March 14, 1977 — to myriad other shows, ranging from Thin Lizzy to Rush (again and again) to AC/DC to the Grateful Dead, I emerged from that august venue more times than I can count, bleary eyed, reeking of reefer, and trying to shake off a buzzing sound that would dog me for days.

One show in particular stands out: Rory Gallagher. The Irish phenom opened for Jefferson Starship, a battered craft that had somehow survived the ‘60s and crash landed on the Stanley’s stage on Nov. 27, 1979. Rory was blues rock fury. The Starship sounded like the bastard child of a hippie chick and Lemmy Kilmister, half the band stuck in the past, the other half trying to capitalize on it. No Grace Slick. No Jorma. No soul.

Thirty-seven years later, I still marvel at the way Rory blew the doors off that theater, the Starship and everyone in the audience. The next day, I smugly read Pete Bishop’s review in the Pittsburgh Press.

Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico was “not in a class with rip-roaring Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher,” Bishop wrote.

Damn right.

But I didn’t realize what drama had transpired that night. Infamous acid chemist Owsley Stanley was running sound for the Starship, and he managed to cross Rory before the show began.

Here’s how Phil McDonnell, Gallagher’s soundman and road manager, told the tale, as related by Dan Muise in his 2002 book “Gallagher, Marriott, Derringer & Trower: Their Lives and Music”:

Phil McDonnell: I only heard him (Gallagher) say the “f” word twice. Now that’s in an industry where everybody says it every fourth word. … We were doing a show in Pittsburgh with Jefferson Starship. We were on-stage doing a sound check. The monitor engineer was a guy called Owsley from The Grateful Dead, the guy that had the acid factory. Owls was out with Starship. The Mair monitor system was still in its infancy in them days. And if you’re used to Martins, which Rory would have been, the Mair system is something the ear would have to get used to. And Rory wasn’t getting what he wanted from these wedges. He wasn’t getting the kick from the monitors that he was used to. I used to always say that Mair was no good for acts like Rory. Rory needed kick-ass stuff with a bit more whacking in the chest, you know. He wanted to hear that snare. Like I said it was still in its infancy. And Owsley was an experienced guy but never known for his diplomacy. … But at the gig Owsley comes up and he says, “What’s the matter, man?” And Rory demanded respect from people because he was a respected musician. He never ever thought he was anything special but if people would get sort of a little cheeky with him, he used to demand a little bit of respect. Which all musicians do. And Rory said, “It’s my monitors.” And he said to Rory, “Ah, your problem is you’re not using them properly. You don’t know how to use monitors.” And fuckin’ Rory just “lost it!” He fuckin’ lost it, man! He said the ‘f’ word then and everybody just went ‘OH!’ We all knew he was bout to go apeshit just because he said that word. I can’t remember any other place he said it.”

Of course, my 17-year-old self wasn’t aware of any of this. I just knew I was pissed that Rory had been allowed to play only 9 songs that night and the headliner was a bunch of has-beens who had been polluting WDVE, my FM radio station of choice in those days.

The ultimate irony: Just a few days later, on Nov. 30 or Dec. 1 (I’ll be damned if I can remember which of the two shows I saw), the Grateful Dead played the Stanley, sans Owsley. I really didn’t know much about them and went only because my buddy Nate’s older brother said we should check them out. I dosed, I was converted and I spent the next several years following them with the conviction of a new disciple.

And Rory? I never got to see him again, but I still have his music in heavy rotation. Especially Irish Tour ’74.

Another Pete Bishop review of a Stanley Theater show: Rush, a few years earlier, which was my first rock concert.
Another Pete Bishop review of a Stanley Theater show: Rush, a few years earlier, which was my first rock concert.