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Guitar savant Gary Clark Jr. blazes beyond the blues

Gary Clark Jr.'s ‘JPEG Raw’ is a demonstration of his ever-expanding creative canvas on which he experiments with sounds and textures that are disparate and diverse

Gary Clark Jr. at the 2017 Bourbon and Beyond Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.
Gary Clark Jr. at the 2017 Bourbon and Beyond Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. (Getty Images)

On 22 March, when blues guitarist and singer Gary Clark Jr. appeared as a guest on The Joe Rogan Experience, a wildly popular podcast, it was timed with the release of his new album, JPEG Raw, which is the Austin, Texas-based guitar savant’s fourth full-length studio album. In the three days after that episode of the podcast was released, streams of Clark’s music, already popular on Spotify, shot up by 150% worldwide and 180% in the US.

Rogan’s sometimes controversial show, in which he has freewheeling chats with a wide variety of guests, is likely the most popular podcast in the world today, reaching more than 14.6 million listeners and with 10 million more followers than its closest rivals.

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The impact the podcast episode had on Clark Jr.’s music is known as the “flywheel effect” and for Spotify it is a welcome side-effect that immensely popular podcasts can have on the works of musicians featured on them. On Rogan’s sprawling (two hours and 45 minutes) episode with Clark, the two spoke about a host of stuff: the gentrification of Austin where tech giants, including Elon Musk, have been setting up shop; Clark’s musical journey; gun laws; and racism. But Clark also played for the first time a live acoustic version of Habit, the longest song on his new album.

Clark’s new album doesn’t need a podcast to push it. As a guitar prodigy who began his career playing in smoky Texas bars at the tender age of 14, his blues credentials are unquestionable. When his previous album, This Land, came out in 2019, it was a breakthrough. It won him three Grammys, including one for the Best Contemporary Blues album. Clark, now 40, has got many accolades for his music. He has been billed as the saviour of the blues and his searing guitar playing has been compared to all-time greats such as Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, and Eric Clapton. He has opened for the Rolling Stones, jammed with Buddy Guy, played with Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page and also Clapton.

After This Land came out, Clark was quickly billed as the new messiah of the blues. On This Land, he took the genre to a new level, infusing into it influences of R&B, hip hop, and hard rock. Critics widely believed that he was the exciting new rejuvenator of the blues. They were right…and wrong.

With his latest album, JPEG Raw, the seeds of which were sown during covid-induced quarantine, Clark has taken everyone by surprise. It is a captivating exploration of his immense musical talent, a prowess that goes way beyond just the blues. JPEG Raw is not a blues album of the sort that audiences would expect from him, but a creation based on the vast range of genres that has influenced him over the decades that he has been a musician. It is certainly rooted in his signature electric guitar-forward blues style but it has the grungy grittiness of garage rock; the soulful groove of R&B; elements of hip-hop’s beats; complex jazz chords and improvisations; strains of world music, particularly of those originating in Africa; and even folk music harking back to seventies.

Indeed, a new comparison of Clark could be made now with that of the late genius musical polymath, Prince, who is regarded as one of the greatest modern musicians. On JPEG Raw, Clark has collaborated with all-time greats such as Stevie Wonder who sings on the track, What About The Children, a poignant reflection on society; and with George Clinton, one of the pioneers of funk in the 1970s, on Funk Witch U. Wonder is 73 and Clinton 82. On another song, Don’t Start, the roots folk singer Valerie June duets with him; and on yet another, the London-based R&B singer of Ghanaian heritage, Naala, sing, and the track, Alone Together, features the jazz trumpeter, Keyon Harrold.

Clark himself sings in ways that we haven’t heard him, sometimes even in high-pitched falsetto, delivering soul-steeped R&B. On This Land, Clark’s core band was a no-frills trio (guitar, bass, and drums). JPEG Raw has a musical heft that is expansive: horns, synthesisers, flutes, Wurlitzers, and a bevy of back-up singers that includes Clark’s sisters and even his daughter.

JPEG Raw is a demonstration of Clark’s ever-expanding creative canvas on which he experiments with sounds and textures that are disparate and diverse. Raw and unfiltered, it is a masterpiece of an album.

Habits, the last song on the album, is a nine-minute autobiographical opus that stands out, showcasing in a single track the different styles and genres that Clark can explore. It is like a stream of consciousness that starts somewhere but ends up somewhere else as he sings: “I’ve got habits that I just can’t break, mmm/ When I think about it, I start to shake/ I’ve been feelin’ like this for a while/ And I always hide behind my crooked smile…”

I read somewhere that the album title, JPEG Raw, an allusion to digital photo formats (Clark is also deeply into photography), is meant to be an acronym that expands to Jealousy, Pride, Envy, Greed, Rules, Alter Ego, Worlds. The songs on Clark’s eclectic album seem to traverse through all what those words might mean.


Lounge List

Five tracks by Gary Clark Jr. from ‘JPEG Raw’ to bookend the weekend

1. ‘Maktub’

2. ‘JPEG Raw’

3. ‘What About The Children’

4. ‘Triumph’

5. ‘Habits’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. He posts @sanjoynarayan

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