Gary Clark Jr. Warehouse Live November 26, 2013
Gary Clark Jr. is a stealthy kind of guitar hero. He won't dazzle you with his fretwork very often (though he certainly could), but his subtle, brooding brand of blues doesn't have to try very hard to loosen inhibitions. I witnessed behavior Tuesday night that is usually cautioned against in public. It's the kind of music that leads to people getting into trouble later.
Clark's backstory is that he picked up a guitar in middle school, decided he liked it, and has been playing ever since. In interviews, the 29-year-old Austin native comes off as a modest, soft-spoken dude who respects his elders and is grateful for the breaks he has been given. He thanked his mom on his recent Austin City Limits appearance. It's hard not to root for the guy.
To me Clark's great gift is his tone, a warm, fuzzy sound that comes off like aural mahogany. One he and his three-piece band got warmed up and locked in, the sound washed over the room like a post-Thanksgiving food coma. Sadly I am not enough of a gearhead to know what kind of equipment he was playing Tuesday night at Warehouse Live, but it was the right stuff.
Clark seems like a pretty laid-back dude in general, and did nothing to contradict that Tuesday. After a long, deliberately paced intro, he and the band went into "Ain't Messin Around," which opens his 2012 Warner Bros. LP Blak and Blu, but dialed back the tempo considerably to a much more mellow groove. Same for "Travis County," his great boogie/shuffle about getting busted as a teenager, which followed.
But most songs Clark played Tuesday did not just have sections, they had chapters. He cemented the show's after-hours vibe by swapping out a cover of B.B. King's "3 O'Clock Blues" for Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun," which appears on Blak and Blu and in the set lists for most of the shows on his fall tour. After that things just got steamier, and that's not even counting an outright panty remover like "Please Come Home."
His head must be in an interesting spot. Clark is playing a kind of music whose commercial popularity peaked a generation or two ago, and succeeding. True, given the Black Keys' similar fortunes, fuzz-bombs like "Numb" sound less anachronistic than they might have a few years ago. But for people who grew up with this stuff, it's still greatly reassuring to see a young Texas bluesman sell out a large Houston ballroom.
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Clark saved the one song that could probably fly on contemporary R&B radio, "You Saved Me," until the encore, almost like an afterthought. He skipped the Blak and Blu song most closely aligned with hip-hop, "The Life," altogether. But to put it kindly, it wasn't that kind of crowd.
His other gift is the kind of thing that usually only critics notice. He managed to keep Tuesday's sold-out crowd -- white folks of all ages, with a few black and brown faces here and there -- attentive, and even captivated many of them. True, it was too crowded for much horseplay, but about 25 percent of the fun of this show was watching the audience react to the music, because most of these folks looked like they don't go to all that many concerts, and they were digging it.
Aside from the impromptu photo shoot that broke out next to me late in the set, people more or less kept on their best behavior. Some really got into the music, such as the woman doing these rope-climbing arm motions during Muddy Waters' "Catfish Blues." Then there was the amorous couple nearby who took Sinead O'Connor's "I Want Your Hands On Me" to heart before the show was hardly even underway, and one poor girl who allegedly passed out in a bathroom stall. At least it was in the ladies' room.
Personal Bias: I've been a fan of Clark's since he was a teenager playing Monday nights at Austin's Continental Club in the mid-'90s. Couldn't be happier to see him become a bona fide star.
The Crowd: Could have been worse, especially for a sold-out room.
Overheard In the Crowd: "That's my slow jam."
Random Notebook Dump: A lot of people must be off tomorrow.
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