The only thing growing faster than Gary Clark Jr.’s acclaim -- among fans, critics and iconic musicians alike -- is the scope of his talents and tastes.
But nothing you have seen, heard or read can prepare you for the power and scope of his debut album, Blak and Blu. Not the buzz from his Run-The-House tour through the 2012 festival season which included Coachella, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Bonnaroo, Metallica’s Orion Fest, and Lollapalooza, to Jay Z’s Made in America Festival (the only artist invited to play both nights) and continuing through the upcoming Neil Young curated Bridge School Benefit, Austin City Limits gathering and NOLA’s Voodoo Fest.
Not his collaborations, in the studio and on stage, with Nas, Alicia Keys, the Roots and Eric Clapton nor the ear-bending, cross-format embrace of his tour-de-force debut Bright Lights EP can prepare you. Even his one-to-watch appearance at the White House command performance for the Obamas alongside Mick Jagger, B.B. King, Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy -- prompting the Music Fan-in-Chief to remark, “He’s the future.”
The album, produced by Mike Elizondo (whose credits are fittingly eclectic, running from Dr. Dre to Fiona Apple to Mastodon to Eric Hutchinson) with Warner Bros. Records chairman Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Dave Matthews Band, My Chemical Romance) and Clark, puts his talents and ambitions through a brilliant prism of vast possibilities. Blak and Blu is a rocket ride rushing from the Mississippi Delta of a century ago to a point somewhere ahead of the horizon, gathering up the whole of blues, rock and soul along the way.
The opening song Ain’t Messin’ Around raises the curtain with a bang. A showstopper that evokes prime Otis Redding the way Sly Stone evoked James Brown and The Rolling Stones with fuzz bass and blaring horns suggesting Memphis on the moon. Travis County is a blast of Chuck Berry-esque roots rock fueled by killer hooks. Numb offers heavy psych-blues to render you just what the title says. Black and Blu is crisp lovers-soul. Bright Lights slots nicely between the White Stripes and The Black Keys, but with Clark’s own vision standing apart from the crowd.
The nearly 10-minute medley If You Love Me Like You Say / Third Stone From the Sun, dives right into the fire of a common, and daunting, comparison, with equal measures of fearlessness and artistic aplomb. Sandwiching a scorching cover of Little Johnny Taylor’s soul hit (as popularized by Albert Collins) inside two dynamic slices of Jimi Hendrix’s classic instrumental trip, dazzlingly reinterpreted by Clark, his inventiveness and originality are still front and center. You Saved Me seeks, and finds, salvation both from the heart and the gut, its slow, fuzzed introspection brings forth an unexpected falsetto before a deft, melodic guitar solo melts into pure, honest emotion. And Next Door Neighbor Blues closes with an acoustic, foot-stomped slide take straight outta Clarksdale.
“I was really inspired all at once to do all kinds of different things,” he told his hometown newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, citing an array of inspirations from Skip James to Otis Redding to Albert King, Freddie King, to Nina Simone to Jimi Hendrix to OutKast to Green Day, Nirvana, The Strokes to Marvin Gaye and just about anything and everything in between.
Where would this lead? “I’m not exactly sure myself,” he laughed, just as he started work on the album.
It may be hard to describe, for him or for us, but it all comes very naturally to the young musician; a triple threat guitar-slinger, emotive singer and involving songwriter, a virtuoso on all fronts but one who always honors feel over chops. The results are sonic journeys that are equally soulful and psychedelic, in the deepest sense. Whatever terms used, the music is ever-thrilling and involving.
It’s an “all-is-possible” reach that accompanies his all-embracing artistry. One day he’ll be stealing the show at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival -- handpicked by Clapton himself for an unheard-of spotlight set by a virtual unknown, with the icon eagerly taking on a mentor role to the youngster; another he’ll be teaming with Alicia Keys and The Roots on a moving benefit concert version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Keys had already been imploring her fans to check him out: “You know who’s killing it? Gary Clark Jr.” she’d said. “Hurry up and Google [him] before you’re late, because he is, like, so special.”
And recently there was an unprecedented collaboration with Nas, the pair commissioned for music by ESPN for NFL coverage.
It’s his guitar chops that tend to get the first notice, with The New York Times saying no less than “He may be the next Hendrix.” His sound is round and raw, coming up from the very earth; his facilities are startling, fleet and fluid, though foremost soulful.
But it takes only an instant to realize that the key trait he shares with such giants as Hendrix, Clapton or Beck is that voracious love of all music of power and soul, and that rare ability to internalize and personalize it all into a truly distinct, organic whole.
“Owing as much to Kurt Cobain and the Ramones as Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker, indebted to hip-hop and psychedelia,” Rolling Stone declared, “[Clark] is grounded in tradition while standing on the brink of change.”
Taking up guitar at age 12, Clark quickly found his way into the fertile Austin scene, taken under the wing of long-time club owner and artists advocate Clifford Antone and such local stalwarts as Jimmie Vaughan. Antone put the youngster on stage with such blues giants as James Cotton and Hubert Sumlin. Vaughan and others taught him about moving beyond the legends, both going back to the originators who influenced them, but also embracing the spirit of innovation that separated such groundbreakers as Cream and the Stones from the crowd. He made the most of the support and became such a shining presence that Austin declared a “Gary Clark Jr. Day” in his honor while he was still in his teens. And by 2007 he was named the city’s best blues artist and rock guitarist at the Austin Music Awards. In fact, he’s won those same categories every year ever since.
At the same time he was tapped by writer-director John Sayles to play the role of Sonny Blake, a fictional bluesman fittingly challenging the conventions of the gritty ‘50s circuit, in the film “Honeydripper”.
The buzz found its way to Clapton, who invited Clark to play on the 2010 Crossroads Festival in Chicago, an event showcasing the most distinctive guitar talents of a variety of genres. Clark’s appearance with Doyle Bramhall II and Sheryl Crow opened a lot of ears to his talent. Clapton then took Clark along as his opening act on a tour of Brazil that fall.
All along, the artists to whom he’s been drawn are those who don’t fit in genres, but are genres unto themselves. He’s taken their lessons to heart. There’s so much more to come. We may not know what it will be, but we know it will be astounding.
Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes concluded in his full page dedicated, 4-star lead review of Bright Lights EP, “The most exciting about Clark is that he could steer his career in any direction -- or every direction.”
Perhaps the most succinct summation of Clark’s musical vision and what lies ahead can be taken from a recent interview where he imparts: “Music is movement. It all moves together, like lifetimes—a continuum. It’s all part of the same fabric in the end.”