The Thrill Isn’t Gone
How Gary Clark Jr. made the blues cool again.
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 while a seventh grader at Austin’s Covington Middle School. But he soon switched to blues guitar after hearing his classmate Eve Monsees (now the co-owner of Antone’s Record Shop, in Austin) jamming in her garage. Much like the great Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil to create such classics as “Love in Vain,” Clark sold his adolescence to the blues dives of Austin. To a Sixth Street tourist, Joe’s Generic Bar was a loud dump without a stage. But to a teenager who wanted to learn every lick and chord, it was Harvard.
Clark was turning heads at thirteen, but he laid low until 2001, when he announced his arrival on the Austin scene with a set opening for the legendary singer Bobby “Blue” Bland at the Victory Grill. The old chitlin-circuit club on Austin’s East Side was packed beyond capacity that night, full of people waiting for Bland’s return to a stage he visited regularly in the early fifties. But the evening belonged to the seventeen-year-old Clark, who brought the Grill back to its glory days with a three-song performance that had women screaming like they did for B. B. King decades ago.
Two years after that triumph, Clark was burned out on the Austin blues treadmill. Looking for a change of scenery, he took his first trip to New York City. That first night in Manhattan, he walked past Madison Square Garden. He stopped and stared for a long time. “I kinda made up my mind right then that I was going to really go for it,” he remembered. He knew he had to get back to Austin to forge a style all his own.
He finally reemerged from the Austin scene, fully formed, seven years later, at Eric Clapton’s 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival. In the midday Chicago heat, Clark stirred up a lethargic crowd by making Jimmy Reed’s blues standard “Bright Lights, Big City” his own, with a relentless guitar stroke and new lyrics inspired by his first night in Manhattan. Based on that performance, Warner Bros. signed him and last year released The Bright Lights EP, which made history by being the first four-song sampler to earn lead-review status in Rolling Stone. After heralding this “shape-shifting” guitarist, critic Will Hermes ended his piece with the words “Can’t wait for the album.”
More than a year later, the wait is finally over. Blak and Blu, co-produced by Clark and Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Maroon 5), arrives October 23. “I want to surprise people,” Clark said of the album, whose cover is a trippy sketch that suggests sixties psychedelia. “If someone heard a song and said, ‘Hey, that’s not blues,’ that wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
Though Clark doesn’t sound too much like Stevie Ray Vaughan, there are career similarities. Today Clark is an Austin sensation on the cusp of something bigger—right where Vaughan was thirty years ago, before Texas Flood made him a generation’s guitar hero. There is, arguably, even more riding on Clark’s Blak and Blu. After all, he’s not just playing the blues for himself, as became apparent to him in February, when he performed at the White House’s Red, White and Blues gala. Barack Obama sat in the front row, bopping along with a big smile. At rehearsal the day before, the president approached Clark and thanked him for keeping alive the legacy of the blues.
But although he’s fluent in the musical language created in the forties by Dallas’s T-Bone Walker, Clark doesn’t want to be limited by that legacy. In April, almost ten years to the day after Clark stood in front of Madison Square Garden and vowed to make good on his talent, he’ll finally play the world’s most famous venue: Clapton’s 2013 Crossroads Guitar Festival will be held at the Garden, and Clark is assured a spot. This time, he won’t have surprise on his side; most of the people in the audience will already know his name. But if they’ve been paying attention to the trajectory of his career, they’ll be wondering what, exactly, he’ll do when he hits the stage.
When’s the last time anyone wondered that about a blues musician?