There’s nothing better than heading to a gig, about which you are already excited, to find that the support act is a worthy headliner in their own right. Elles Bailey, with whom I was not previously familiar, is a revelation. Her demeanor on stage is relaxed and jovial, but when she begins to sing, it casts a spell over the venue that manages to silence even those individuals who lurk at the back of the venue, seemingly oblivious to the glares their raised voices are attracting.
She opens her set with ‘Same flame’, her dusky voice ably backed by some gorgeously liquid slide guitar and a bass that seems to throb in the air, somewhere just in front of the stage. Although Elles does have her own band, this stripped-down approach is particularly effective as it allows her voice to shine, free from distraction, and for an audience largely unfamiliar with her charms, it is the perfect introduction. Elements of past and present combine in the Bristolian’s eclectic mix, the music bringing to mind the likes of Blues Pills (an act fronted by a similarly electrifying singer) and Janis Joplin, to whom Elles pays tribute later in the set. Truly, the only response is ‘wow!’ and it’s clear that Eric Gales (who publically states he’d love to tour with Elles again) agrees.
Elles hops onto piano for the Muscle Shoals – inspired ‘perfect storm’. An initially laid-back blues number with a strong emotional resonance, it builds to a sparkling finale that proves to be rambunctious enough to break a string. This actually works in the audience’s favour, as Elles has a moment to explain the next song, ‘time’s a healer’, a bonus track from the album which, with its lush guitar work, recalls hints of Beck’s glorious ‘sea change’ album with an added country vibe. ‘Waiting game’ has a nice rhythmic pulse to it, and it’s easy to imagine it really cooking with a full band behind it, whilst the playful, soulful ‘shackles of love’ keeps things moving nicely. As the set nears its end, Elles evokes the spirit of Janis perfectly with the moving tribute, ‘the girl who had the blues’ before ‘wild fire’ brings the set to a suitably impressive close. Elles is still on tour throughout November, and if you’re reading this and haven’t yet caught up with her myriad charms, make sure you rectify the situation – she’s bound to go far. 8
Having caught Eric Gales and his band when they toured just a few months back, I was full of anticipation for this concert. Eric is a remarkable player but, whilst both he and his band are technically very capable, the real reason for his brilliance is the unrestrained joy he takes in playing. His passion shines from the stage, and there are few artists who so successfully transpose sadness into joy through the medium of the blues. This is a particularly true on this day. Not only is it the last night of the tour, but, it also transpires, the night directly following the tragic death of a close family friend. With both Eric and his wife badly affected, no one would have blamed the pair for calling the concert off, and yet they choose to subvert their grief and turn it into something beautiful through the music. Their bravery and spirit is something to behold and when, during a marvelous, extended rendition of ‘boogie man’, LaDonna leaves the stage in floods of tears, Eric shares the cause with the audience with disarming honesty. The band, undaunted, continue and when LaDonna returns, her spirit undimmed, the look she shares with her husband, and the smile that eventually breaks through, is inspirational. It is an intimate moment this very remarkable couple share with their audience, and it forges an unbreakable bond that underscores just why Eric is one of the most revered guitarists alive.
And what a show! Opening, as on the last tour, with a synth drum beat and bass line reminiscent of Miles Davis’ late 80s output, the audience are treated to a short, jazzy prelude before LaDonna announces Eric who, in typical fashion, saunters on, only to suddenly bellow “stop!”
“I’m disappointed” quoth the big man. “I’m disappointed because I seem more hyped than you!” If true (and it’s hard to imagine Eric sustaining an emotion such as disappointment for any length of time), then it’s the only moment during the concert that it is so, for, from that point on, the crowd roar and cheer for all they’re worth. Eric also informs us that he’ll be back in March for the stunning Mascot / Provogue tour before breaking once more into the jazzy intro. It’s all the audience need to get hyped and Eric quickly takes his band into a bristling blues instrumental, complete with industrial strength rhythm section. It raises the pulse nicely before a short pause allows Eric to retell the dark story that lies behind the redemptive ‘Middle of the road’ album. The tale of drugs, alcohol and decline is a poignant one, but the fact that Eric is still with us is a blessing, and his obvious joy is infectious. It provides the perfect gateway into the aforementioned ‘Boogie man’, a track which is extended to the stars and back.
‘Boogie man’ is followed by an up-tempo blues instrumental, but it’s as nothing compared to the stunning rendition of ‘Freedom from my demons’, so overflowing with heroic guitar work it all but blows the mind, which follows. As he plays, Eric squawks, wails and talks to himself like a man possessed and it is here that LaDonna’s beautiful smile returns, as she watches her husband tear up the fret board with such a potent mixture of passionate fire and simple dexterity.
The set’s highlight is surely a ferocious take on ‘baby please don’t leave me’ before Eric leaves the stage to allow space for Cody Wright (the John McLaughlin of bass) and Nick Hayes (on drums) to do their thing. A feat of deft prog-jazz that leaves jaws at floor level, it has the audience entranced. From there, the band can do no wrong, and Eric leaves the audience once again in a sense of awe at his unbridled enthusiasm and dizzying ability. It’s an epic set, easily the equal of their previous outing, and one that leaves the entire crowd genuinely inspired.
Eric Gales is a remarkable artist. His playing is like nothing on this earth, so suffused with joy it radiates from the stage, and, whilst his shows do offer a free form display of virtuosity, it is never at the expense of the heart that fires the music. It’s hard to put into words quite what an Eric Gales show is like, suffice it to say that it cuts to the very bone of what it means to be a genuine blues artist. The next tour cannot come quickly enough. 9