Music

A spiritual comeback for guitarist Eric Gales

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Guitarist Eric Gales was pretty stoked when I spoke to him last week, just before the snow started falling. Gales, who’s originally from Memphis, Tennessee, has been living in Greensboro since 2012 with his wife, LaDonna, who also sings in his band. He was feeling good about the fact that “Carry Yourself,” the first single from his forthcoming album, Middle of the Road, was already showing up prominently on the blues charts and playlists on platforms like iTunes and Spotify.

The album doesn’t come out until late February in the U.S., so a little positive early attention seemed to hint at more good things to come. Gales said he was also celebrating six months of being clean/sober, after having spent big stretches of his life and career struggling with addiction.

“I’m just 100 percent focused,” says Gales, who spoke by phone before heading out on tour. “The best way I can describe it is that I had a lot of things tearing at me.”

The new single starts out with a wah-wah-heavy riff that flips the way its accents pop out at you, starting out with one stress sounding like the downbeat, which then shifts into the backbeat once the band kicks into gear behind Gales. It’s bluesy-soul track with a slight psychedelic tinge and an unusual pow-wow-beat repeating refrain. Gales can shred in the blues-guitar hero fashion, like Joe Bonamassa and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. But Gales, who emerged on the national scene as a 16-year-old prodigy with his solo debut in 1991, seems to have moved past the need to show off his pyrotechnic chops. He’s as interested in songwriting, working with collaborators like singer/songwriter, producer and longtime friend Raphael Saadiq.

“I’m always open to put my head together with people that help the song come together,” says Gales. “Two heads are always better than one.”

Guitarist/vocalist Gary Clark Jr. joins Gales on one tune, while brother, former bandmate and longtime collaborator Eugene Gales makes a guest appearance on another.

As a left-handed African-American guitarist who strings his instrument upside down, Gales is probably never going to escape comparisons to Jimi Hendrix. And while Gales plays with more of a quiet internal focus and less flamboyant theatricality, it’s clear that he has studied the master. You can see videos of Gales playing Hendrix’s “Little Wing” online, but he attacks it with a jazzy touch, wedging in crunchy passing chords and other light flourishes.

Gales can move from feathery and delicate to chunky and thick. Raised in a religious family, he did a version of “Amazing Grace” on an album of instrumentals a few years ago, in part to demonstrate a different side of himself.

“Playing in the church and being in the church is something I’ve had in my life since we were kids,” says Gales.

Discussing the gospel feel that shows up in his music in places, Gales says the difference between gospel and the blues is, in many cases, just one of lyrical content. Sacred and secular music can share an energy.

“There is a power that’s raised up when the spirit is high,” says Gales.

As much as Gales might inspire comparisons to Hendrix or gospel, there’s also a simmering soul-funk energy to his music. The opening track to the forthcoming record, a song called “Good Time,” is a driving call to feel good — basically consisting of the line “come on, have a good time” set against offbeat handclaps and locomotive beats — that has something in common with Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Elsewhere, like on “Change In Me” and “Been So Long,” a squishy reggae syncopation shows up.

“We were able to mix different spices together in one project where they’re all able to fit,” says Gales of the genre-jumping. “My thing is blues rock, funk, gospel, urban — all in one.”

The blues, as a style, a form and an aesthetic, have famously ping-ponged back and forth across the Atlantic. Many white American music fans had their first serious exposure to the blues through the music of British artists like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. Gales has tipped the hat to those English artists on records. Gales is not of the purist/preservationist school of the blues. He’s more interested in freshness than history.

“A proper homage in my opinion is doing somebody’s stuff not exactly the way they did it,” says Gales. “You take it and you put the spin on it.”

If the blues emerged along the Mississippi River, blossoming in places like the Delta and Memphis, heading up to cities like Detroit and Chicago and then getting a British twist in London, Gales can be seen as re-anchoring the blues with more recent injection of the Memphis sensibility. Though, to be fair, Gales spends much of his time on the road, and he’s often said that he’s not sure his musical approach is shaped much by place — as he says now of Greensboro — fond as he is of his hometowns.

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The message of recovery, endurance, self-improvement, spiritual optimism and transcendence is threaded throughout the record, which was recorded in Los Angeles over a two-week period.

“Can’t nobody help you until you’re ready to help yourself,” goes a line on “Help Yourself,” a slithery and clipped Texas boogie stomp that definitely brings comparisons to ZZ Top, though it has surprising parts with multi-tracked scat-like vocals paired with guitar lines, acoustics and other unexpected touches.

“There’s a story within the record,” says Gales. “There is no way possible that I see turning back to the dark period of life — mentally and spiritually. This is the best turn of life events that I could have. I survived a real dark time and now people are gonna know about it.”

Eric Gales’ Middle of the Road will be released in the U.S. on Feb. 24 on the Mascot label.

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