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Eric Gales to play YES! Weekly party March 31

by Brian Clarey

He wails. He chops. He moans. He screams.

Eric Gales was born to be bad.

Listen to his latest CD, Crystal Vision, and you’ll get the picture. From the opening riffs of the first track, ‘“Retribution,’” he’ll make you snarl and sneer and nod your head in appreciation of the primal language he evokes with his guitar. The hard rhythms’… the soaring leads’… the down and dirty vocals that bespeak volumes about betrayal. And payback.

“Retribution is my middle name’….”

And then he lays into the axe like, dare I say, a mature and focused Jimi with a few shakes of Texas hot sauce thrown in.

‘“People always compare me to Jimi,’” Gales says by phone from his hometown of Memphis, ‘“because I’m black and playing amped up music. I do like to let it be known that I am Eric Gales first and foremost. Second of all, it’s the highest compliment in the world being compared to Jimi.’”

But Gales’ roots stretch even further back than Hendrix’s reign as the preeminent rock guitarist. Gales’ grandfather, Dempsey Garrett Sr., hosted jams with the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf when they came through St. Louis. Grandpa was old school ‘— he played the right-handed guitar upside down because there weren’t any left-handed ones to be had when he came up. Technique and style came down through the bloodlines to Eric’s oldest brother Eugene, who taught both Eric and the middle Gales brother Manuel (aka Little Jimmy King), how to play a flipped-over Fender Strat.

Oddly enough, Eric and Manuel, who died in July 2002 of a heart attack at age 34, were both right-handed. But something happens to the electric guitar when it’s turned on its ear, something Eric says he can’t replicate any other way.

‘“There’s definitely a difference,’” he says. ‘“I can play a regular lefty’… it’s a challenge to me, but I can hold a note. [On the upside-down Strat] I do a lot of things that right-handed players do, but I had to come up with my own way of doing it.’”

But not a lot of guitarists have done what Gales has done. Eugene put a guitar in his hands when he was just 4 years old and he began winning blues competitions at the age of 11.

‘“By the time he was twelve,’” Eugene recalled in an website bio, ‘“man, he was teaching me.’”

He was signed by Elektra Records at age 15 and by the time he turned 16 he put out his first album with his brothers, 1991’s The Eric Gales Band, which was hot enough to earn him recognition among the readers of Guitar World magazine as Best New Talent in a poll. They followed it up with Picture of a Thousand Faces in 1993 and the youngest Gales brother became the ‘It’ guy for guitar hero fanatics and the subject of barroom debates over the title of Baddest in the Land.

And then, some time around 1995 after recording Left Hand Brand with his brothers, he went to ground for a while.

Every noteworthy guitar hero has an aura of mystique. Robert Johnson signed a deal with Old Splitfoot at the crossroads of Highway 61. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi died too young. Jimmy Page had a weird sex thing going on. Guys like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, as talented as they are, arguably never truly reached legendary status because they were so available, so damn happy to be there, and their styles went unclouded by darkness and rage.

Eric Gales doesn’t want to talk about it.

His time on the down-low was surrounded by rumors of irresponsible behavior, of missed gigs and drug use and disrespect for authority that would be normal in many young men near the age of 20 but which can spell disaster for a burgeoning legend.

And it almost did. But Gales pulled out of his funk and under a new label released in spring 2001 That’s What I am, where he reclaimed his throne as the Baddest Man in whatever town he happened to be in.

‘“I started getting more serious,’” he says. ‘“I had to. You only got one life to live, and short of that you gotta do what you gotta do.’”

He started getting calls soon after he resurfaced for appearances on tribute albums to Led Zeppelin, Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton and Jimi. He regained the name recognition he had walked away from when he was still a teenager and found himself performing for the Masters of the Universe.

‘“Oh yeah,’” he says. ‘“[Keith] Richards, Clapton is a fan, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder’… uh, it’s just, you know it’s great, man. I had Robin Trower, , you name it. I been privileged to have a damn good turnout as far as celebs go. Paul Rodgers, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Buddy Guy, Carlos Santana, Earth Wind and Fire, Robert Randolph ‘— when I met him I didn’t know who he was but when I saw him sit down and play that thing I said, ‘Lawd a’mighty, that’s got to be against the law.””

Gales will stretch local regulations against serious rock guitar on Friday, March 31 at Greene Street, his first gig in the Carolinas in recent memory and possibly his first ever in Greensboro.

‘“I been to Raleigh and Hickory,’” he says. ‘“I don’t know, I mighta passed through [Greensboro].

‘“The plan is I’m gonna come out hard and pay the rent,’” he says. ‘“That’s it in a nutshell. You guys are gonna get rocked so hard’….’”

Aww yeah.

At 31 Gales is still a bad man, though he’s more than a few steps ahead of his demons and still chasing the dream of six-string immortality after being at it his whole life.

‘“I picked up the guitar at four,’” he says, ‘“I was onstage by [the time I was] eleven. I been playing for 27 years, man. I can’t believe it. I’m almost ready to retire.’”

He’s kidding about that one.

‘“No,’” he says, ‘“I’m not going anywhere man. I’m gonna pick until it’s done.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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