Eric Gales turned heads with his guitar playing for a long time — starting with the Eric Gales Band, a collaboration which also featured his older brother Eugene.
The Memphis group released two albums on Elektra Records in the early ’90s, putting a national spotlight on the younger Gales who was still in his teens at that point. The level of talent that he displayed at such a young age was hard to believe for some -— which led the group to project an image of his driver’s license at their concerts to prove that what the audiences were seeing was no illusion.
The young guitarist got plenty of education during those early years in the music business.
“Well, you know as quiet as I was as a kid, I was soaking up a whole lot of things,” he recalls in a phone interview. “I didn’t talk much back then — I just played and observed, whether I started to apply it immediately or not, when I pretty much got on my own, was a different story, but a lot of that information that was acquired back then is being definitely applied today.”
The band’s deal with Elektra splintered after two albums, something that he chalks up to the “circumstances” of the time.
“It just fell apart. Not with the band, but there were label issues and things like that. The president [of the label] wasn’t the president after the second record,” he says. “It was those types of industry issues.”
Even with the turbulent demise of their situation at that point, it’s an experience that he remains grateful for — including every gig and moment of struggle that came after.
“How we started was a great start,” he says. “You know, I went through the things in life and to come to the point where I am now, I think everything that I went through is [part of the] recipe and ingredients for where I am today. If I had to do it different, I wouldn’t.”
More than a dozen albums later, Gales remains a powerful force to reckon with — lowering his bluesy six string #BOOM (the hashtag that he ends all of his posts on social media with) on unsuspecting crowds worldwide. When we caught up with him, he had just returned from a weekend trip to India where he shared the stage with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and others as part of the all-star collective Supersonic Blues Machine.
He comes to Cleveland for a show at the Beachland Ballroom on the eve of the arrival of his latest album, Middle of the Road
, which lands in stores on March 24. The new album finds Gales operating with his usual intensity on the fretboard, but also an added clarity — he’s celebrating seven months of sobriety and looking ahead to better times.
“Having the opportunity to see life through new eyes is going to be amazing,” he says. “It’s already amazing to have the world see this clarity that I have and just being the real me right now. It’s coming through on this record and I think everyone will see what I mean.”
A cast of longtime friends and collaborators, including singer Lauryn Hill, join Gales once again for the new album.
Hill first met Gales when Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish became aware that she might be looking for a guitar player. Even though she already had two guitar players on payroll, Hill quickly found a way to make room once she heard Gales play and he spent two years on the road playing shows with her. He was happy to get the chance to collaborate with her on the new album.
“She was a part of the lyrics and everything on ‘Been So Long,’” he says. “I explained to her what I wanted to do with the track and she was very instrumental in helping to make that happen for me.”
Middle of the Road
also features guest spots from Raphael Saadiq (a longtime friend, who previously produced Gales’ 2014 Good For Sumthin’ album), brother Eugene Gales and guitarist Gary Clark Jr., who plugs in for an intense version of Freddie King’s “Boogie Man.” Songs for the album grew naturally out of the experiences that Gales found himself working through.
“It turned out to be kind of an autobiographical story of my life that blended with great songs musically, with an intensity that the points got across,” he says. “It’s very simple — it’s very easy to write about experiences in life, so I think it came across well.”
Producer Fabrizio Grossi was an important presence during the recording process for the album and according to Gales, things moved quickly. They started pre-production in May of last year and had wrapped things up by August.
“[Working with] Fabrizio turned out to be a great collaboration,” he says. “[He has the] ability to help pull the ideas from the artist and create them through the speakers to come out with the exact [things] I wanted to hear. It turned out great.”
Similarly, Grossi is a big fan; he first came in contact with the guitarist when he was working on a George Clinton project and enlisted him to play on a track.
“His tone and his playing was wicked,” Grossi says in a separate interview, recalling the work that Gales did on the Clinton album. “Personally and musically Eric grew into a ‘monster,’ a really good one, and he’s set on a path of huge success with a ‘taking no prisoners’ type of attitude! I know a very few musicians with such a musicality and Eric is right there ahead of the bunch. I hope fans will dig [this]. There’s lots of love, tears, sweat and ‘truth’ in this record, which is what classics are made of.”
For Gales, Middle of the Road
is something he views as a high-powered ticket which will carry him across many miles in the near future.
“This record’s going to take me everywhere that I’ve never been and everywhere I’ve ever wanted to go,” he says. “I truly believe that. It’s a strong statement in my life right now and I think when everybody hears it, they’ll find out.”
Eric Gales, Thirteen Cadillacs, 8 p.m. Thursday, March 23, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $25, beachlandballroom.com.