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The modern-day saviour of electric blues

  • Texas bluesman Gary Clark Jr’s new album explores new boundaries in blues
  • Clark burst upon the scene in 2012 when his first album on a major label, Blak And Blu, was released

Gary Clark Jr performing at the Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
Gary Clark Jr performing at the Byron Bay Bluesfest in Australia in 2014. Photo: Getty Images

Well into his set at the Glastonbury Festival in 2016, Texas bluesman Gary Clark Jr was pleasantly taken by surprise when a large section of the crowd cheered him on by singing the chorus verse of Mustang Sally, the old rhythm and blues song. It goes: “All you want to do is ride around Sally, ride, Sally, ride/ All you want to do is ride around Sally, ride, Sally, ride." Only, the exuberant crowd changed “Sally" to “Gary" as they sang, making the singer feel both chuffed and amused.

That hour-long Glastonbury set Clark played was an unforgettable ride for everyone—Clark and his band; and the massive audience that had turned up in spite of it being a wet and rainy day. All the 10 tunes he played and sang that day were excellent but the one that stood out was a nearly 12-minute version of When My Train Pulls In, in which his extended guitar solo riff is to die for.

The video of the entire concert is easily available online and it’s so good that I’ve watched it several times and bookmarked it in my browser. Clark, who hails from Austin, Texas, may well be the modern saviour of traditional electric guitar-led blues. In a recent profile of veteran Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy, the editor of The New Yorker, David Remnick, mused about whether that brand of blues would die with Guy, now 82. It is musicians such as Clark who will probably keep the genre alive. Clark, 35, plays the blues in the old-fashioned style—analogue, spontaneous, and soulful. And many believe he may be one of the finest blues guitarists of the times.

Although he has been playing the guitar since he was 12 and doing gigs in his home-town, Clark burst upon the scene in 2012 when his first album on a major label, Blak And Blu, was released. Since then he has released two more studio albums, The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim in 2015, and his latest, This Land, which came out last month. But it is his live performances that showcase his talents the best: incredibly great guitar playing and deeply soulful style of singing. His riffs can remind you of a young and wild Buddy Guy but also of the late guitar genius, Stevie Ray Vaughan. And his vocals, occasionally hitting a falsetto high, make his songs always seem like he means every word that he sings.

In the article I mentioned, Remnick quoted the late American novelist and scholar Ralph Ellison’s description of the blues: “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." Listening to the title track in Clark’s new album, I was reminded of that description. Blues purists may be a bit taken aback by This Land because unlike the music on his past albums, Clark pushes the envelope quite vigorously on it. Reggae, funk, hard rock, soul, and even hip hop styles emerge on the album where the theme, for a large part, is about a successful black musician who still faces the backlash of racism and discrimination.

That theme appears full on in the title track where Clark sings without mincing words: “Paranoid and pissed off/ Now that I got the money/ Fifty acres and a model A/ Right in the middle of Trump country/ I told you there goes a neighbourhood/ Now mister Williams ain’t so funny/ I see you looking out your window/Can’t wait to call the police on me."

The songs on This Land range from old-timey blues (The Governor) to neo-soul and R&B (Pearl Cadillac) to good old rock ‘n’ roll (Gotta Get Into Something). Yet these experiments don’t seem contrived and Clark and his band segue effortlessly between styles. Refreshingly too, This Land is a long album, clocking in at 72 minutes and with 17 songs, including the bonus track, Did Dat, which has a distinctive hip hop feel in the background.

Clark’s studio albums are supplemented by two live albums—2017’s Live North America 2016, and 2014’s Gary Clark Jr Live. Both are pure gold for blues enthusiasts. In 2014, Clark, lean, lanky, bearded and unconventionally good looking, also appeared in the Jon Favreau film Chef, performing two songs live with his band. In 2015, Don Cheadle cast him in the biopic on Miles Davis, Miles Ahead, in which he played a member of Davis’ band. And in 2017, on the soundtrack of DC Films’ Justice League, Clark’s version of The Beatles’ Come Together is featured. There’s also a recent video of him and his band—drummer Johnny Radelat; rhythm guitarist King Zapata; bassist Johnny Bradley; and keyboardist Jon E. Deas—performing their electrified and upbeat version of that Beatles composition on the Howard Stern Show.

His new album demonstrates that Clark is the sort of musician who will continue to explore and push the limits of a genre that often gets short shrift because of the persisting, and somewhat annoying, trend of digitally enhanced, auto-tuned, and synthetically put together music that seems to have caught the fancy of many musicians and millions of listeners. The blues deserve a fresh lease of life; and we’re fortunate that saviours of the genre, such as Clark, are around to ensure that it happens.

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


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