Rock NYC’s review of recent Big Apple performance from the Austin-based contemporary blues guitarist
By Iman Lababedi
So Gary Clark Jr, great white hope of blue players from Austin fucking Texas, the future of rock and roll, so cool, so handsome, making the world line up so you can show em what’s what, this years hype. It’s nyc, it’s a packed out Bowery Ballroom, and the stage is yours… watcha got?
Er, quite a bit actually.
With a presence both electrifying and casual, the lanky, scruffy, good looking Texan Gary Clark Jr. , managed the stage with the cool you imagine a Hendrix had near the start of his career. Five minutes of feedback and distortion was followed by a mind bending, heart rattling, life changing “Third Stone From the Sun”
This is possibly the greatest guitar based opening to a concert I have ever seen. It was like the second coming. In the tiny confines of the Bowery Ballroom you could get right up close to Clark and watch him play and it was… amazing. At one point he was finger picking his guitar with both hands so quickly he seemed like he was playing riffs but he wasn’t. The sound was astounding, astonishing, it was the most beautiful thing on Earth, and Gary was so charismatic on stage, such an aura about him and the audience were dazzled, it was like a dream of sound come to life.
I promise you, he could have played that riff for the next 90 minutes and nobody at Bowery Ballroom would’ve complained, and when it took off on his first guitar solo, it was like the entire place held its breathe. I read something in NYT a coupla months back about how he is somewhat shy off stage, but onstage is extremely, insistently, in the moment. It isn’t the intense transportation of a Hendrix or Stevie Ray solo, but the cool snap of a Clapton. And considering Clark is from Texas, it is still really Delta Blues that is his starting (though not finishing) part.
In 2010, GCJ blew away the audience at Clapton’s “Crossroads” Charity gig and in 2012 he has been on the Festival Tour playing… Coachella, JazzFest, Memphis Beale St., Hangout, High Sierra, Sasquatch, Mountain Jam, Wakarusa, Bonnaroo, Hard Rock Calling, Newport Folk Festival, Orion Music Festival, Osheaga, Lollapalooza, and ACL Music Festival and getting a name for himself as the best blues guitarist since Stevie Ray Vaughn if not, indeed, King Of All He Sees Hendrix. The set was a ”Long Live the King” moment amplified all the more by Gary opening his set with a song culled from Hendrix debut album. It doesn’t hurt that Monday’s version is the best I’ve ever heard, including the original and Vaughn’s take off Soul to Soul. Speaking of Vaughn, Stevie Ray’s brother Jimmy was an early Clark mentor.
But till Monday I wasn’t buying into the Clark is God movement, I hadn’t seen him live and while I admired the Bright Lights EP from a distance, I don’t particularly care for the Blak And Blu album, certainly here Hendrix comparisons die on the vine when listened to next to Are Your Experienced. Clark considers himself a renaissance man, citing not just blues, but jazz, funk soul and hip hop, as influences. Perhaps, but they aren’t doing him any favors on Blak And Blu.
And on stage, they don’t seem to even exist… not really. On the album, Gary offers soul manish “Please Come Home”, a full blown ballad sung falsetto. Introducing it on stage as a love song, he can’t maintain his falsetto and the song, which isn’t much, seems to suck the energy out of the place,e except the guitar solo is a marvel and wile on stage the track is too busy with orchestra strings and anyway lasts barely a minute, on stage he soon knocks off the soulman and the deep blues break is really gorgeous in ways it simply wasn’t. His hand vibrates so fast it is a blur, you can’t see how he is doing it and it looks like the wings of a humming bird and the sound is not like other sounds, it is like a dashing bravado of sound rattling on the strings.
That cool even pervades his stage patter, “Having a good time?’ He asks, “Hmmmm….” before launching into the white hot “Ain’t Messing Around”, which is kinda Temptationish on record and reveals itself as a Chuck Berry inspired rock and roll song, like the way we always want Berry to sound, and “Catfish Blues”, the Delta Blues classic is the sorta song you play at the White House to impress the President.
I don’t know how this sells at a festival, where you can’t see the expression on Gary’s face, or move him out of the way during the opening set because he and his equally tall lady friend are ruining your sitelines of ZZ Ward. Maybe the impression of seeing what is obviously a major major blues guitarist in such close quarters , is influential, maybe he isn’t as great as it feels as though it was but I can’t tell. I went in to question the hype but there is no hype. The album is a misstep but the next one he will get right. but this show needs no excuses, it was a major event by a 28 year old modern bluesman, the bet young bluesman in the business.
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