Gary Clark Jr.

Warner Brothers, 2014

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Player, singer, composer, interpreter, bluesman, guitar god—Gary Clark Jr. is all of these things and more. But the word that keeps coming to mind, listening over the past few years as he has built a worldwide reputation, is shaman. Gary Clark Jr. is a 21st century blues shaman, with talents that feel drawn equally from prodigious skill and profound magic.

One thing the man isn’t, is an imitator. Yes, the configuration of his band—second guitar, bass and drums, behind Clark on lead guitar and lead vocals—is a familiar one among the several blues giants Clark covers on this two-disc live album, which features nine originals and six covers. But Clark’s covers don’t sound like Muddy Waters or B.B. King or Albert Collins or Jimi Hendrix—they sound like Gary Clark Jr., playing classic blues and blues-rock and making it his own.

Clark’s spectacular guitar playing, deeply felt and endowed with a kind of swerving, swooping grace, creates a voice all his own that lives beside, above and below the words he sings. It’s in the interplay and juxtaposition of Clark’s two voices that the magic happens.

This 95-minute-plus set, assembled from various dates on Clark’s heavy 2013-14 tour schedule, manages to shine a spotlight on every corner of the rich musical heritage Clark explores. Opener “Catfish Blues” in many ways captures the essence of what makes Clark so special. It’s a Muddy Waters number, a slow back-porch blues about a man who’s leaving, transformed by the fierce intensity of Clark’s playing and singing into something closer to Led Zeppelin than Robert Johnson.

The four originals that follow showcase Clark’s multifaceted talents as a composer. “Next Door Neighbor Blues” takes a traditional blues form and turns the volume up to eleven, an electrified back-porch stomper full of remarkable guitar heroics. “Travis County” feels like Chuck Berry unleashed, the answer to the musical question “what if an early rock and roller played through a fat stack of Marshall amps?” “When My Train Pulls In” is a mid-tempo cut with a heavy groove built for soloing. And “Don’t Owe You A Thang” is simply ferocious, starting out double-time, moving through a couple of verses and then moving into a pair of blistering, psychedelic, far-side-of-the-moon solos by Clark and fellow guitar-slinger King Zapata. “Just me and this guitar, baby / That’s all you get” goes the chorus, and Clark sings it like he means it. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Disc one closes out with a trilogy that again illustrates Clark’s range. First he covers a master masterfully, giving B.B. King’s “Three O’Clock Blues” a reading that would make Lucille proud. Then Clark’s own “Things Are Changin’” casts him as a silky-smooth soul man with elegant little guitar filigrees behind his croon. You’re still nodding in admiration when he eases into “Numb,” whose deceptively gentle open moves quickly into a thundering, psychedelic, nearly apocalyptic blues.

That strain of psychedelia plays an interesting role on second-set opener “Ain’t Messin ‘Round,” transferring the energy of the studio version’s fat horn section into the guitars, making this driving soul number sound like James Brown reinterpreted by Hendrix. There’s a great moment around 5:00 where they strip it down to just bass and drums, fully exposing the song’s deep soul groove. I still miss the horns, but this will definitely do.

From there the highlights just keep on coming. “If trouble was money, baby / I swear I’d be a millionaire” sings Clark, covering an Albert Collins classic. On “Third Stone From The Sun” Clark goes full Hendrix, as he should, turning Jimi’s composition into an extended, interstellar exploration ranging past 10 minutes, while filling the middle section with a funked-up rendition of Johnny Taylor’s “If You Love Me Like You Say,” just because he can. Self-indulgent? You bet, but he’s got the chops to get away with it.

Next, the soul man returns as Clark delivers a Motown-style ballad in a beguiling falsetto on his own “Please Come Home” (“You made me love you / And that’s where my love will stay”). Of course, since he’s Gary Clark Jr., he fills the fourth and fifth minutes with a sunburst of a guitar solo. The title track from his major label debut, “Blak And Blu” arrives as a spare solo blues, just Clark, his guitar, and a bucketload of intensity.

Closing out the album, first “Bright Lights” offers a dark, heavy trip into the urban underbelly, feeling a bit like Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” reimagined by a guitar god. And then “When The Sun Goes Down” finishes up with a slow, soulful blues featuring Clark accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica.

Even the packaging of this album seems designed to reinforce Clark’s image as a masterful reinterpreter of vintage forms. Sepia-toned photos on front and back show Clark silhouetted against a giant outdoor festival crowd, inevitably conjuring images of Woodstock, despite the skyscrapers visible in the background.

Gary Clark Jr. doesn’t cover classic artists and sounds so much as he channels them, drawing on their power and spirit and transforming their inspiration into moments of stunning beauty and intensity. There is indeed something magic about this man and his guitar, some indefinable spark that allows him to make the old sound fresh and new and vibrant as a technicolor sunset. As a summation of the Gary Clark Jr. story so far, Live offers a rich collection of musical moments that linger long after the last note fades.

Rating: A-

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© 2014 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers, and is used for informational purposes only.