Eric Gales, Crown

Eric Gales, Crown, Provogue Records/Mascot Label Group

What an album from Eric Gales, stretching the boundaries of blues rock and setting a new standard for the genre. The musicianship and arrangements serve the strength of the song-writing perfectly, Gales’s singing is versatile and powerful and, of course, as you’d expect, his guitar work is all you’d want from one of the world’s great electric guitar players.

Lyrically, it’s a remarkable piece of work, clearly confessional, auto-biographic and reflective. Gales shares his troubled history of struggles with substance abuse and addresses the reality of his life as a Black man in the United States. It’s powerful stuff, at times breath-taking. It’s real, and it’s potent stuff.

Of the songs on Crown, Gales has said, “They’re about my life, and what’s happening in the world right now…when it came time to sing, I had to take breaks between vocals to cry and let it out. I was sharing my experiences as a Black man, and my private struggles. This is me letting the world know what I’ve been through.”

Musically it’s hugely enjoyable and I found myself blown away by the sophistication of the song structures and arrangements. A huge cut above what you get on most blues or rock albums.

The album begins on a confident note on Death of Me, with Gales intoning, “My name is Eric Gales. Any questions?” A heavy, repeated guitar riff, leads into a song with an urgent message to a younger self to learn from his mistakes. If you don’t do that, it’ll “be the death of me.” The heavy guitar work stops half way through the track and to the backdrop of an operatic chorus, Gales begins a rap-like sequence where he declares he’s “become the man I wanted to be.” It’s heady stuff for sure, and a fabulous start to the record.

From the beginning, you can feel the background presence of Joe Bonamassa, who produced the album with Josh Smith, and who makes a guest appearance on the stand-out track, I Want My Crown. The video produced for this is a hugely entertaining mock title fight – with guitars – between Gales and Bonamassa. It’s great to see Gales in such confident form after the various struggles and self-sabotages of the past. And amazing to see these two jaw-droppingly good guitarists trade fast and furious licks across the ring. Don’t miss watching it.

Gales’s guitar work throughout is a wonder. It’s not just fast and furious fret-burning, though. There is that, but it’s intelligent, tasteful and soulful. People have noticed the Hendrix echoes; that’s there, and once or twice I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan, especially in the 30 seconds of Had to Dip and then again in Too Close To the Fire. But mostly it’s just Eric Gales, his own voice, playing with great energy, using the instrument as a vehicle for his emotion.

It’s not all fireworks, though. I Found Her, with its Paris-boulevards feel, is a beautiful love song of gratitude – “I found her that woman that saved me…thank God I found her.” The album showcases Gale’s remarkable vocal talent, at times raw and powerful, but here it’s sweet and tender.

Gales’s wife Ladonna takes the vocals, though, on James Brown’s Take Me Just as I Am, a funky, soulful number which gives us a chance to enjoy her musical talent.

The album’s self-confessional nature of necessity has to take on the issue of racism. In The Storm, the song begins with Gales singing a cappella “How can you love what I do but hate who I am,” before the full band, including the brass section kicks in. Stand-up has a powerful video which Gales introduces by saying “This is for everyone who has ever felt discriminated against. We should all learn to co-exist for the common good of the human race.”

The gentle sweetness and gospel feel of the music belies the solemn account given of the discrimination that Gales has faced over the years. It’s a moving song with beautiful harmonies and some masterful guitar work from Gales.

After 18 albums produced over the last 30 years, this is Gales’s masterpiece, an artist feeling confident, with an eye to the future, and able to give off his best. It’s the blues for sure – Gales says, “When I play, the core is always the blues, and on this album, we go through a theme park of the blues, exploring all kinds of blues” – but it’s today’s blues, feeding off the past but exploring modern themes and moving in fresh directions. Highly recommended.