Wearing an Antone’s T-shirt, an old bluesman’s fedora, and black jeans tucked into untied boots, Gary Clark Jr. walked onto the main stage of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on June 10 with the nonchalance of a man strolling to the mailbox. Five minutes before his scheduled time, the lanky 28-year-old Austinite picked up his big red Epiphone Casino guitar and began casually strumming. Foggy chords emerged, shot through with shimmering notes, and bit by bit the sweet rumble drew in festivalgoers from the periphery, the migration speeding up as the music got louder. When Clark and his three-piece band kicked off the set with a borderline-psychedelic rendition of “When My Train Pulls In,” the field was filling up. By the time they finished, an hour later, they were playing to a grooving mass of around 30,000.
During “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” the crowd no doubt stared in awe at the jumbo screens to the sides of the stage, where Clark’s long, athletic hands could be seen scrambling around the strings without a pick, his fingertips dancing all the way back to gritty Texas bluesmen like Albert Collins and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Bonnaroo, held in southeast Tennessee, is the most tie-dyed of all the summer music destinations, and Clark’s exotic blues-rock-soul made the grounds feel like Woodstock. “You’re gonna know my name by the end of the night!” were the last words he sang, and the crowd began to chant, “Gar-ree! Gar-ree! Gar-ree! Gar-ree!”
It’s been a long time since a young bluesman was hailed as a rock star, but all summer long, the young man in the old man’s hat wowed crowds at nearly a dozen major festivals. Over the past few years, he’s won the admiration of Eric Clapton, Alicia Keys, and Paul McCartney and earned the slightly overheated honorific “the next Hendrix.” A big part of his appeal is that he has modernized one of music’s most relentlessly vintage genres. Midway through his Bonnaroo set, he started playing Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun,” segued into Little Johnny Taylor’s chestnut “If You Love Me Like You Say,” and mimicked a hip-hop DJ’s scratching with a blurry-fast right hand on his guitar’s thickest strings. Then, after the grungy “Numb,” he took a breather from the guitar onslaught, slipping into the R&B original “Things Are Changing,” delivered with a soulful, elastic voice. His music may spring from the twentieth century, but he’s got an eye on the twenty-first.
Clark can stretch the parameters of the blues so authoritatively because he knows them so well. One thing that sets him apart from all the other young six-string blues hotshots out there is juke-joint authenticity. Mentored by veteran bluesmen from an early age, he doesn’t sound like he started playing after someone gave him a Stevie Ray Vaughan record. He sought out the same sources Vaughan did, then greased them up and rolled them around in crumbs of funk, hip-hop, and jazz. It’s an audacious mixture and a reminder that low-down blues was the original “urban music.”
Clark’s race, no doubt, plays a part in all this attention. Though electric blues was created by rural blacks who migrated to the big cities between the world wars, white players and audiences have come to dominate the genre as black youth have gravitated to soul, funk, and rap. If you get the sense that a lot of people are rooting for Clark, it may be because he’s seen as a Larry Bird in reverse, a savior of the blues on a mission to reclaim the music for the race that gave birth to it.
“I never even thought about [race] until someone brought it up,” he told me, recalling a black classmate at Austin High School who questioned his choice of music. “Black folks don’t play the blues,” Clark was informed.
Clark was a Michael Jackson fan as a kid; he put together an R&B vocal group called Young Soul