Gary Clark Jr. stands alone. Sure, he’s got a great backing band, but the Austin guitarist is truly the only young guitar virtuosos we’ve got rocking in the strange behemoth of the commercial music world. Clark jams to the beat of a different drum compared to his contemporaries, hitting the well-worn head of a drum once beaten before. He’s a man with southern soul or what you Northerners call “blues” and not the kitschy Black Keys variety that’s just garage rock revival and ultimately doomed at arena shows. Finally, after tearing the lid off of those same large-scale stages that others could barely crack, he’s come out with a debut album.
Despite the harmonious, sweet horns and Clark’s matching croons, opener Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round is in your face like an unsportsmanlike touchdown dance. This is Gary Clark Jr. in your face and daring you to challenge just how good he is. Unlike other untouchable guitarists, somehow Clark comes off less like an asshole and more like a charming hustler. “I don’t believe in competition/Ain’t nobody else like me around” sings Clark with unassuming bravado. At his most sultry, his voice is reminiscent of John Legend’s and with songs like the eponymousBlak and Blu, Clark lays the swagger on thick.
Festival favorite Bright Lights is where Clark shines most with his unique combination of guitar and vocals acting as one, at times an extension of the other soaring from phrase to phrase. It’s a cover of the great Jimmy Reed classic Bright Lights, Big City beefed up, stretched out, and ready to take on anyone or anything that crosses its path. Listening to Bright Lights is like reliving the Johnny B. Goode scene in Back to the Future as either a wide-eyed teen just hearing those far out jams for the first time or nodding along smugly, knowing who Clark is nodding to as well.
Bright Lights is a great primer to the Gary Clark Jr. style just because of how deftly he owns the blues jam. It’s just as ubiquitous in live performances as the man himself; he’s a recipient of Spin Magazine’s Golden Corndog Award for his commitment to gracing just about every festival worth mentioning, though we’re hoping his taste in fest food at least extends to Crif Dogs or something slightly classier than a damn corndog. That type of oversaturation of big ticket performances and a slew of EPs is the nature of the modern-day music industry. It’s how Lana Del Rey can play SNL despite being little more than a Youtube sensation with a few singles and a whole mess of silicone.
For those of you eagerly awaiting Blak and Blu, you’ve got just about exactly what you want in a Gary Clark Jr. album: it’s versatile, slick and just begging for constant rotation. When My Train Pulls In recalls Jimi Hendrix’s famous riff in Voodoo Child, Glitter Ain’t Gold (Jumpin’ For Nothin’) slams into your earholes like classic Faith No More, and Third Stone From The Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say is straight-up Rock n’ Roll at its finest, Clark carrying the entire song with his guitar, bolstered by drum and organ, launching into the blues lament of the B-side. After the final chords ring out on lo-fi gem Next Door Neighbor Blues, congratulate yourself on listening in on the condensed history of blues as taught by Gary Clark Jr. You made a damn good decision to stick with the music and that kind of class.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.