When an artist can stand in front of a crowded room and speak, unamplified, to the masses with barely a voice raised, you know he has their complete attention and Eric Gales, touring the UK for the first time, certainly does have everyone’s attention. He jokes, at one point, about how he might spontaneously combust such is the emotion and energy contained in his slender frame and it’s easy to believe that it just might happen. Utterly irrepressible, he’s a blur of motion on stage, often stepping away from the microphone mid-sentence simply because he can no longer remain still in front of it. It’s utterly engrossing and you can sense the audience straining to catch his every word throughout the show, not wishing to waste a single moment spent in Eric’s company.
First up, the support comes from The Tom Walker Trio, a band who offer up a somewhat disparate set list, running through a range of genres set with varying degrees of success. As we arrive, the band are working through a funky number that recalls the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ ‘Aeroplane’. It’s fine, if mired in the familiar, whereas ‘Cross the border’ is a full-blooded delta blues complete with wired slide guitar work and a pounding beat. It’s the set highlight and Tom Walker impresses with his guitar work. ‘Human nature’ slides into a smooth blues number more reminiscent of Robert Cray whilst ‘Sweet angel’ is also an impressive track. Unfortunately, the band choose to close with a cover of Joe Bonamassa’s ‘The balled of John Henry’, recast in a funky mould. It’s a misstep and while Tom gives plenty of oomph to the solo, the piece as a whole lacks the fire of Joe’s reading. It’s always dangerous to head into such well-worn territory and, on this occasion, it does not quite com off, although there are many in the audience who would disagree, judging by the roar of approval that greets its conclusion. 7
After half an hour, the canned music fades away and Eric Gales’ band bound on stage to a funky number. Eric’s greeting is split between his obvious joy at being in the UK and his equally apparent heart-break at the tragedy that unfolded in Manchester on the very day Eric and his party arrived. It’s a very human address, very moving, and when Eric asks for a moment’s silence so that the audience can contemplate that a group of individuals just like them didn’t make it home one night, the response is quiet respect, the packed Robin 2 waiting quietly for Eric to lead it out from the darkness. When he does it’s with typical exuberance and the music, which is cathartic for a number of reasons, sweeps through the crowd like an electric charge. It’s a remarkable experience form the get go. Eric and his band draw heavily on the recent (and quite wonderful) ‘middle of the road’, playing the celebratory ‘Change in me’ early on in the set. The track is dedicated to Eric’s 11 months of sobriety and is imbued with a static-shock solo so filled with emotion that it threatens to overload the stage. A Freddie King cover (also from the album) appears next in the form of ‘Boogie man’ but what really cooks beyond all belief is a jaw-dropping cover of Buddy Guy’s ‘baby please don’t leave me’ which is just immense on every level. When music is this good, it’s like you’re touched by some elemental force, and it’s hard to imagine a single person in that audience not feeling the hairs stand up on the back of their neck as Eric and his band dug deep to deliver a performance that made time itself stand still. How lucky that Eric was able (with the help of his talented wife LaDonna) to overcome his addictions and be with us here tonight – a true force of nature, his effervescent stage presence and astonishing musicianship is a unifying force that has the whole audience drawn together as one.
A Band showcase follows next, giving bassist Cody Wright and drummer Nick Hayes the opportunity to flex their creative muscles. To be truthful, calling Cody Wright a bassist is a bit like calling Everest a hill, the man is a miracle of dexterity, playing his bass like a guitar and unleashing a flurry of notes that seem to bounce around the venue in time to his flashing fingers. Nick Hayes is no slouch on the drums either and it says much of Eric’s generosity of spirit that he is content to leave the stage as his band (including his wife LaDonna, who gets to indulge in a percussive solo of her own later) send the audience into fits of ecstasy. When Eric returns sweet solos abound on a nice, bouncy blues number with a Hendrix vibe, Gales’ fingers racing across the strings of his guitar (played left handed but strung for the right) like a hurricane, although even this pales in comparison to ‘middle of the road’ closer ‘swamp’ which sees the whole band tearing back and forth like a musical whirlwind. It is here that LaDonna breaks forth with a percussive solo as the band tear around her and the musical firestorm that Eric Gales has promised from the opening bars of the show rains down. BOOM indeed! From there on in, the band can do absolutely no wrong and it seems like the remainder of the show passes in a heartbeat, the band digging on Hendrix and Led Zeppelin as Eric demonstrates a versatility that must surely rank him amongst the very best guitarists on the planet. It may be the case that Eric has lost time due to his addictions, but it is equally clear that now, with his muse unleashed, there is nothing to stop him from finally realising his potential.
Eric Gales is a true artist. Generous of spirit, technically gifted and a natural story-teller, his music is an extension of his own vivacious personality and both he and his band shine from the stage with a blinding light. To stand in the packed Robin 2 and witness such a show is a genuine delight and I have no doubt that, if Eric makes good on his promise to return at the end of the year, an even bigger audience is waiting in the wings. This felt like one of this historic shows about which people will talk for years and it was an honour to be present. 10