Gary Clark, Jr.

Photo Credit: Joe Koch

Before electronic music, before hip-hop, before rock ‘n roll, before R&B, there was the blues. All popular music stems from the blues; a musical genre with history and origins that are rooted in oppression and have produced not only a plethora of legendary singers, songwriters, and musicians, but also a lifestyle, a culture, and a shared human feeling. Everybody’s got some blues in them. The blues, with all its simplicity, allows for so much personal expression and individual creative release, whether by belting out painful lyrics of a lost or cheating lover, or by shredding a bone-chilling guitar solo. And while there may not be as much blues on the radio as there used to be, don’t for a second start thinking that rock ‘n roll and the blues are dead. There are still some incredibly talented and young blues artists out there right now. First artist on our list right now is Gary Clark Jr.

Gary Clark Jr., whose promising career just began really coalescing around five years ago, is no stranger to the blues. Growing up in Austin, Texas, Clark Jr. found himself born into a town rooted in musical and cultural traditions, a town that gave starts to legendary blues musicians like Freddie King, T-Bone Walker, and my personal favorite guitarist of all time, Stevie Ray Vaughan. At the age of twelve, Clark Jr. picked up the electric guitar and began learning the treasured language of the blues. In his teenage years he was playing shows around Austin and once he got a little older, began playing with the iconic Jimmie Vaughan. Clark Jr., who was playing shows around four or five nights a week, became a veteran of the Texas rock ‘n roll scene.

In 2010, Clark Jr. released a self-titled EP containing all original songs. I would definitely recommend giving this album a listen; Eric Clapton certainly enjoyed it. In fact, Clapton liked it so much that he invited him to play at his famous Crossroads Festival. As a much lesser-known act, Clark Jr. took the stage during the daytime. And if he was nervous at all to walk on stage and play for thousands of people who had never even heard his name before, he certainly didn’t show it. You have to watch his performance of “Bright Lights”, his most popular song, on YouTube. Clark Jr., with his lanky frame and unkempt facial hair, takes the stage, as well as the audience, by absolute storm. He delivers a fantastic rendition of the song; his robust vocals are delivered with an absolute power that intensely grips the attention of everyone in the arena. Clark Jr. supplies gritty rhythm guitar work before busting into a muscular, fuzzy guitar solo that spirals into Hendrix-like madness and climaxes with the help of his horn and rhythm sections. It’s excellent. No matter how many times I watch his Crossroads performance, I never get tired of it.

In fact, it was so great that it landed him a deal with Warner Records and in 2012, Clark Jr. released his first full-length album titled Blak and Blu. Now, this album was not what I was expecting at all. Clark Jr., who tears up stages with his version of aggressive blues-rock, constructed a collection of songs of various genres. At first, I was disappointed. I wanted to hear what I had previously seen from his YouTube videos. Clark Jr. can play old classics like “Three ‘O Clock Blues” and channel his inner B.B. King with delicately phrased guitar solos better than anyone. But when I heard songs like the album’s title track, I heard a poppy funk infused with R&B. I stuck to his previous body of music.

However, I started to realize that the blues I was searching for was there all along. While the songs’ genres may not be so clear-cut, they are all deeply rooted in the traditions of the blues. Clark Jr. is showing his audience just how far the blues has reached in today’s popular music. I had to remember that Clark Jr.’s music does not exist in a vacuum. He grew up around other influences and his music is evident of that. He nods to country and old school blues with “Next Door Neighbor Blues”. He again tips his hat to Jimi Hendrix and Albert Collins in his funky, trippy mashup of “Third Stone From The Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say”. Clark Jr. reveals his inner Lenny Kravitz with deep songs like “Numb” and “You Saved Me”. Finally, his “The Life” is as much a hip hop song as it is blues. Clark Jr. is still a modern musician, a man of many hats who makes it clear that his personal style cannot be summed up and caged in by a word. I have changed my mind and I now believe this album deserves more respect than it got. Check it out for yourself.

The blues is still alive today. It’s just taking on different forms. Gary Clark Jr. is pressing the boundaries of the blues and he’s doing a damn good job. Gary Clark Jr. is now planning a widespread tour around the U.S. and Australia for the upcoming year. He is an experienced and distinguished performer and you should definitely go see him when he comes by your area.

By David Cooper

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