Since being invited by Eric Clapton to perform at Clapton’s once-wildly popular Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2010, Gary Clark Jr.’s rise from Austin blues circuit young gun to modern-day guitar hero, isn’t one that’s difficult to comprehend. Watching the video
of him that day, it’s clear that Clark had the entire package. Playing what would be his breakout hit in “Bright Lights,” the tone and swagger possessed by the then 26-year-old Clark, had all the makings of a musician that was ready to make his charge—and that he certainly did.
That performance, which now has more than 11 million views on YouTube, would go on to earn Clark a record deal with Warner Brothers, and ultimately jumpstart a career that has since included a Grammy win, tour slots with the Rolling Stones, and a personal invitation from Barack Obama to perform at the White House. Yet, what that performance would also do is cast unrealistic expectations onto Clark, where labels such as “the second coming of Hendrix,” or “The Chosen One” (as Rolling Stone put it), have been continuously thrown around to fulfill headlines.
Sure many of these accolades and comparisons are directly attributed to Clark’s innate talent with his instrument. However, talent aside, this is the effect of yet another artist suffering from pop culture’s void of a modern-day “guitar hero”—an effect primarily created by the many consumers of classic rock radio, who since the passing of artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, have been constantly seeking to find the next guitar-wielding prodigy to bring their nostalgic brand of blues-rock back to the forefront of the music industry.
Considering the unfettered access that music consumers now have to an unlimited amount of genres and eras of music, such expectations are simply unrealistic in the current landscape of the industry. The idea of a genre has become less and less a demarcation of artists and instead a means by which modern musicians can absorb influences to form their own sound.
No person better represents this idea of a modern musician than Gary Clark Jr., who on Friday night proved that rather than being some kind of guitar martyr who only stays within the confines of the twelve-bar blues, is instead an artist capable of going all over the map to satisfy any fan in the audience.
That isn’t to say, however, that Clark shies away from what got him here in the first place. Starting the night off with blues-based numbers like “Ain’t Messin ‘Round” and “When My Train Pulls In,” Clark quickly satisfied the large part of the audience that came for Clark’s guitar playing ability. With drawn-out solos throughout, both songs served as a showcase for the exceptional tone that Clark is able to pull out of his signature Epiphone guitar, which when aided by the ferocity that he attacks each note with, is truly something that has to be heard live to fully comprehend.
Clark's raw guitar power was on display throughout Friday night's two-hour set.
Photo by Connor Fields
With the crowd’s spirits high, Clark then went for the unexpected by dedicating the next 40 minutes of the night to a batch of unreleased songs off his forthcoming album, each of which gave the crowd a different sound than the last. What each song also gave the crowd was a wide-open look into the varied influences that have shaped Clark’s musical makeup over the years.
You had “When I’m Gone,” a Motown-esq tune built around the impressive falsetto of Clark’s voice, “Low Down Rolling,” a folk-based jam reminiscent of something from Neil Young’s catalogue, and then “Walk Alone,” a grunge rocker sounding like something he might have picked up from his time on the road with the Foo Fighters. From here, he then veered even further toward the unexpected by going into a traditional roots-reggae jam, only to follow that with a Ramones-inspired “Gotta Get Into Something,” a ferocious punk anthem dominated by power chords and repeated choruses.
Typically, shows that are made up largely of new material can be a downer for a Friday night crowd (especially when it’s far from the sound that much of the audience has come to hear). However, because of the overall sense of cool that dominates everything Gary Clark Jr. presents on stage, as well as the trademark guitar tone that’s naturally infused in every note he plays (whether traditional blues or reggae), Clark’s transition between sounds was as believable as it gets.
Referring back to his signature Gibson SG guitar, Clark closed his first set with a rendition of “Come Together,” a move that immediately settled any qualms any audience members may have had about the string of unfamiliar music. With the famous three-note lick permeating throughout Revention Music Center, Clark and his band ripped through as loud and rocking of a take on the Beatles classic as one could possibly imagine. This power is largely thanks to the playing of Clark’s longtime drummer, Johnny Radelot, who despite having a paired-down kit, used his physical drumming style to instill a heightened sense of energy throughout the night.
This energy spilled over to the encore, which to the surprise of the audience (and bewilderment to some of the older members of the crowd), consisted of a special appearance from Houston hip-hop legend, Trae tha Truth. With Trae’s flow at the forefront, Clark and his band leaned into a cover of Trae’s 2006 anthem, “Swang,” only further evidencing Clark’s freedom to veer outside the traditional scope of blues.
From there, Clark settled back into fan-favorites “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” and “Bright Lights.” With the same strut that was evident at Crossroads in 2010, Clark commanded the stage. The way his tall frame flows with each note he plays is clearly reminiscent of Hendrix’s visceral stage presence, while the patience he has for each lick conjures up the efficient style of B.B. King.
However, after seeing the many other musical aspects presented throughout the two-hour long set, this is clearly a musician on his own path. Though Clark’s reverence for blues giants like Hendrix and King is still plenty evident in his music (and live show), he needs this influence only as a foundation to build off of rather than something to fashion his entire career around. This is the freedom of a type of blues-based musician that could exist only in 2018—one that can pack a 2,400+ capacity venue out with fans that’ll dig whatever he gives them, knowing regardless of what he plays, he’ll do it in his signature way with just enough guitar power to satisfy all.
Despite the many similarities to past blues greats, Gary Clark Jr. is clearly a musician on his own path.
Photo by Connor Fields