Eric Gales  

4.5/5 reels

Singer/guitarist Eric Gales released his solo debut at age 16 but drug abuse derailed his promising career, with Gales eventually serving jail time in 2009. Even with those challenges, he remains a shining light to many—usually-younger—blues guitarists enamored with his soul and technique. Crown is Gales' latest attempt to take his place in the pantheon of big blues acts.

Gales' issue has never been talent. He consistently releases high-quality material. The reality is, it's tough for artists to break through the noise. But Crown is produced by wildly successful fellow blues child prodigy Joe Bonamassa, who's been producing like crazy lately. It's an interesting pairing as the two are close in age, with Bonamassa possibly representing a what-if scenario of a less turbulent version of Gales' career.

The Sliding Doors concept achieves fruition on "I Want My Crown," a head-cutting guitar duel between the two guitarists. It's fun, in the sense that lots of blues fans appreciate those kinds of guitar acrobatics (as evidenced by the YouTube action on a live clip of the two doing an on-stage guitar battle). Both are hot guitarists. But Gales is also a talented, thoughtful songwriter, and the songs, plus Gales' execution of them, are what makes Crown so enjoyable.

For instance, "My Own Best Friend" is a beautiful track. It's jazzy, with Hendrix-influenced guitar (Gales, Like Hendrix, is a lefty), but the lyrics, about Gales' time in prison, are heartbreakingly honest and beautiful. "Looking up a rock bottom / From a concrete floor / I've got time on my side / I've got time on my hand / I used to be nothing / but a shell of a man." I can't think of too many contemporary artists, from any genre, who can pull from those kinds of experiences and create a song that conveys the sadness of that situation, without being depressing. But Gales does it, while also keeping the music engaging.

Gales features his wife, LaDonna Gales, on "Take Me Just As I Am," a Lyn Collins song. It's a generous act, spotlighting a backup singer, even one to whom you're married, but it's a great moment for the album. Between the soul funk groove and LaDonna's vocals, you're transported back to the 1970s.

Gales spent a few years, and a few albums, on the Shrapnel and Blues Bureau International labels. Both are known for their guitar-heavy releases and many fans, of all genres, love those albums, including Christone "Kingfish" Ingram. Perhaps to reward those aficionados, Gales delivers a burst of blues metal on "Death of Me," which is '80s glam coupled with blues grit.

And then there are tracks like "I Gotta Go," a hilarious horn-driven song about ending a live show. It takes on the banal stage patter artists are pretty much forced to spew, with lines like "Don't try to tip me" and "I really love this city." Joke songs often don't land, but this one is spot-on, and will give everyone a chuckle.

Some writers, and even fans, will frame Crown as a Gales comeback, but while his career and personal life have hit some bumps, he's got a lot of strong material in his catalog. Crown's strength is its rhythm and blues influence, but he touches upon a number of styles, and executes each of them perfectly, like he usually does. So it's not a comeback so much as it's a reminder that Gales is still a vital artist.