It was in the university town of Austin, Texas, that Gary Clark Jr. cut his teeth. The now 28-year-old started playing guitar as a young teenager, drawing from the well of the blues, a steady stream that’s sustained music for generations. It opened doors and set him on his way. He frequented the musical haunts Austin has to offer, honing his chops, jamming with luminaries from Jimmie Vaughn to Hubert Sumlin. A young guy playing the blues, one of many in that part of the world.
“My [early] impression was that he was an eager, rather clean-cut ‘kid’ having a huge amount of fun playing raw, rocking blues shuffles and bouncing around the stage, flirting with the many young women in the audience,” remembers Bruce Iglauer, head of Alligator Records in the US, who’s known Clark “casually” for over a decade.
To hear Clark play now, though, is a far cry from then. In the years since, he’s morphed and evolved and has begun to explore. Today, Clark’s music is covered in a shiny rock ‘n’ roll sheen. It dips into country territory before bouncing back with chugging r’n’b, veering off to soul town and back to the rock. The blues is always there – it’s in his DNA – but he ain’t a simple bluesman no more.
“I saw him [again] 18 months ago. He was doing much more extended jamming, using effects like a fuzz box, wah wah and lots of distortion, sometimes playing to non-blues chord changes and a lot of extended jamming without making chord changes at all,” Iglauer says. “His persona was much more ‘slacker’, with an untrimmed beard, knit hat and kind of a slightly spacey way of talking. His persona and his music fit together both times, but they were markedly different.”
The sonic change can most likely be put down to a basic need to evolve. Being African American, there’s no doubt Clark was pigeonholed as a blues player and a blues player only, and so any rebellious young person would want to buck that trend and move away.
This he’s done, and because the change has resulted in a more “accessible” sound – there are Hendrix comparisons being made, and Lenny Kravitz parallels – Clark was picked up by Warner Brothers Records, a major label, who released his Bright Lights EP in late 2010. They saw in him a marketable way to bring roots music to the mainstream. The EP received heavy-rock radio play, and so Clark is now no longer an unknown, but is about to be introduced to the world at large.
And yet still that blues tag sticks around. He’d probably be the first to say he’s not a blues player, and yet the press persist – because of his background, his ethnicity, their own ignorance and laziness.
“It’s interesting to me to hear him portrayed this way,” muses Iglauer, whose Alligator Records is the biggest and longest-running blues label in the States. “It doesn’t seem to me that Warner is marketing him as a blues artist, and his new single reminds me more of Lenny Kravitz than the blues. I’m by no means a purist, but it seems like Gary is trying a lot of different music, some of it blues and blues-based.”
The phrase that pops up most is “saviour of the blues.” To anyone who plays the blues, who is actually a blues player, who embodies the ethos of this music, this is somewhat of an insult, an example of lazy journalism and a serious misnomer, as longstanding music critic at the Sydney Morning Herald, Bernard Zuel, is quick to point out.
“He’s not the saviour of the blues,” Zuel says of Clark. “Such a statement begs the question that the blues need saving in the first place. And then in what way is he saving the blues? He is [a] youngish musician showing that the blues has a place in contemporary music, but for him as for many others, it’s only one element of his influences and his performance.”
Despite what others are calling him, Gary Clark Jr. is on a new trajectory. Those nights spent sweating it out in tiny Austin venues playing 12-bar blues are behind him. In front of him now is the whole world, the support of a major label, a new record in Blak & Blu (released last October) which sees him almost manically covering a range of styles under the large, ungainly roots umbrella, looking for a more universal sound – from the country tinge of ‘Travis County’, to the r’n’b balladry of ‘You Saved Me’ and the new soul sound of the title track.
“I think he’s making himself into an acceptable mainstream blues-based rock artist who hopefully will have a long career,” says Iglauer. Clark wouldn’t have seen this coming, but he seems to be taking it in stride. “You gonna know my name by the end of the night,” he sings on his cover of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, and it seems he’s not far wrong.
Samuel J. Fell