Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Eric Gales and Robben Ford, Pistoia Blues, 7 July 2019

All day the weather forecast was predicting thunderstorms arriving sometime tonight.  But thankfully the only thunder and lightning that strikes the outdoor space of Pistoia’s Piazza del Duomo is the stuff produced by Eric Gales and his band.
It’s not being lazy to say that Eric Gales has an affinity for Jimi Hendrix.  Sure, the fact he plays left-handed, with an upside down Strat, is just a coincidence.  But whereas many guitarists have learned how to ‘do’ a Hendrixy wah-wah effect, with Gales you sense the Hendrix sound is flowing through his fingers.  Hell, even tuning up a fresh guitar he contrives to sound just like Jimi.
So he comes on stage and essays a Hendrixy preamble as the band take their places, but
Eric Gales - boogie chillin'
what follows is by no means a tribute act.  For much of his set Eric Gales is, well, Eric Gales, kicking things off with a ‘Big Boss Man’-like R’n’B riff – and a busted string on the first of the night’s fit-to-bust solos.  Undaunted, he launches into a bout of 21st Century Chuck Berryism that has the crowd boogie-ing along all the way to the climax.
He follows that with something that may or may not be called ‘Read All About It’ – titles not being hugely relevant to an Eric Gales set, in which songs are generally a platform for his guitar explorations – though not, it should be noted, of the meandering, solo-all-night variety.  But whatever this tune is called, it features another frenzied solo, over a whipping backbeat laid down by his missus LaDonna on percussion, alongside drummer Nick Hayes.
They follow that up with a Hooker-esque slice of boogie that in due course goes all Jimi, and then just plain bonkers, with Gales whooping it up to the crowd from the front of the stage. Needless to say, a battalion of guitar nuts are down the front by now, getting all steamed up by this frenetic fare, so that when the song finishes some admin honcho takes the mic to tell ‘em to sit down.
Gales takes a breather to relate the tale of having left Lithuania at six this morning after last night’s gig, and being diverted to Bologna because of rain storms, making them three hours late arriving at tonight’s venue.  But tonight’s the last night of this European jaunt, he says, so no matter how tired they are, he’s going to give the show his all.  And they then proceed to funk it up in very modern fashion, bass player Byron Carter adding some keys on the intro, before they divert into soulful territory for a spell, with Gales demonstrating his vocal
"Who needs six strings anyway?"
capabilities – something he should do more of, to my mind, given that with some backing from his lady wife he produces a pretty fine Stevie Wonder-ish sound.  But even as I’m thinking this he’s off again, the band holding down a menacingly steady groove, while Gales lets rip with a hummingbird-quick solo before winding up the crowd like Will Smith seeking some goddamned appreciation for blasting away a bunch of aliens.
‘Southpaw Serenade’ kicks off mellow, and with him singing about feeling so alone stays restrained until a solo that has him on his knees, along the way recalling a touch of Stevie Ray Vaughan in reflective mode.  ‘You Got Me Crying’ has a downbeat opening with a bass sound like rolling thunder really has arrived, and stays moody as it grooves towards a slowed down grind through the ‘Purple Haze’ riff, before the kind of solo in which, as a guitarist acquaintance of mine once put it, “he plays a lot of notes”.
He closes with ‘Voodoo Chile’, insisting that “while I don’t want to disrespect anybody’s rules” he ain’t playin’ unless the crowd get on their feet – and naturally, we oblige. Of course, his time-served reading of ‘Voodoo Chile’ is really an excuse for him to hop from stop-start funk to some Blackmore-style neo-classical picking and the riffs to ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Back In Black’, en route to a final bout of wild soloing.  It’s the kind of “give ‘em what they want” trick plenty of artists deploy, but none with as much chutzpah as Gales.  It may not be art, but the Eric Gales show sure is a shit-load of fun.
Whereas I’ve seen Eric Gales before, this is my first live encounter with Robben Ford, and having thoroughly enjoyed his recent albums Into The Sun and Purple House I’m looking forward to it.
He kicks off with the offbeat funk of ‘Down The Road I Go’, including brittle-toned soloing that’s full of the unexpected, before ‘What I Haven’t Done’ from Purple House shows off a ‘less is more’ approach, the notes he doesn’t play as interesting he does, if you catch my drift.  A brief take on ‘Tangle With Ya’, also from the new album, is all tangled up riffs and dulcet fills, while the following ‘Midnight Comes Too Soon’ features floating, mellifluous guitar that fits the song, before he throws in some jazzy chords as he varies the pace and
Robben Ford - 'Sideways'
comes at things from unexpected angles.
‘Indianola’ is a tribute to BB King with a high-stepping riff, on which Ford delivers some chord work that BB himself would undoubtedly have left to a sidekick, while ‘Bound For Glory’ finds the band producing some neat harmonies, and Ford conjuring up some spangliness worthy of Steve Hackett.  Around this point the thought occurs to me that if you wanted to describe them in elemental terms, Eric Gales is all fire and earth, while Ford’s lightness is that of air and water.
Freddie King’s ‘Sideways’ is attacked sideways, as it were, and has immediacy and swing to spare, while ‘Crazy For My Baby’ features tough, ringing chords.
And then . . . things just start to peter out.  The blues of ‘Black Night’ could be bluesier, though it improves as they slow it down, but it’s followed by a jazz fusion outing that really ain’t my thang.
By the time they’ve knocked out yer typical bass’n’drums showcase, and embarked on some anodyne funk in the form of ‘Oh Virginia’, my feet are leading me towards the exit, feeling like the show has suffered a slow puncture.  If Eric Gales’ heat can be a bit manic, there’s no doubting his entertainment value.  Whereas Robben Ford’s cool intelligence somehow doesn’t seem enough to sustain his set to the end, on this occasion at least.
But if I’m left feeling a bit disappointed by the end of Ford’s set, Pistoia Blues – now in its fortieth year - is still a captivating setting for live music, in the shadow of the Duomo on a warm Italian night.  A return visit may well be required next year.

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