Carolina Blues Fest: A bluesman stays home

by Ryan Snyder

A year ago this past weekend, bluesman Eric Gales played a gig that would change his life. Before his headlining turn at the Carolina Blues Festival, he was known almost as much for his past recidivism as he was for his Herculean feats on the guitar, but a chance meeting with a woman he would come to wed only a few months later made the Memphis firebrand a permanent resident of Greensboro. He was back playing the festival’s closeout slot once again this past Saturday and though he wasn’t exactly on the bill, he still managed to steal the show.

Gales stirred backstage with his new wife LaDonna just before the set by de facto headliner, multi-instrumentalist and swamp-blues master Kenny Neal, fielding the question as to whether he was going to play mostly with casual deflection and vague confirmation. His participation became a near certainty once Neal turned to acknowledge the Gales in the middle of his set, offering his 2008 gem “Since I Met You” in tribute to their partnership.

“Since I met you, baby/ My whole life has changed,” Neal sang to the couple. Like most of the music that the Carolina Blues Festival celebrates, the line itself is but a tablet dependent upon the recipient to inscribe with meaning. As ingenuous and common as a songwriting meme like that can seem, it rings utterly true in context.

Gales would eventually make good on the promise that his side-stage presence brought, picking up the demonstrative solo that Neal often reserves for slide guitar on “Outside Looking In,” one of his first great tracks as a solo artist. It wouldn’t be the only work he’d put in this past weekend either. Gales was a surprise addition to the Pizza Jams crew at the Blind Tiger’s benefit for Alison Wood on Sunday, teaming up with members of ESP and Imperial Blend in the all-star finale. Not bad for the new guy in town.