Over the years I’ve found myself defending bands who cover classic blues, ranging from the good (Yardbirds, Animals), to the occasionally good (Rolling Stones, Beatles), to the occasionally great (Led Zeppelin), to… Eric Clapton.
One thing I tend to repeat, without cynicism: Even the most earnest if unconvincing renditions are worthwhile if they serve as a gateway to the source material. If, for instance, someone hears Jack White doing an overly stylized cover of Son House or the Black Keys doing remarkable service to the still-unjustly-unheralded Junior Kimbrough, or even the aforementioned Mick Jagger mumbling Mississippi Fred McDowell, it’s all to the greater good. Quick, raise your hand if you knew about Muddy Waters or Willie Dixon before you heard Led Zeppelin or the Allman Brothers, or Howlin’ Wolf before you head the Doors cover of “Back Door Man”.
And so on.
And so, what to do when you not only hear faithful, bordering-on-unbelievable covers of blues classics, but a young (!) artist who is doing more than anyone in decades (Robert Cray comes to mind, but in a Rated PG way, and Stevie Ray has been gone, alas, for a very long time) to recreate, reimagine and rechannel the old blues grooves into the here-and-now? Enter Gary Clark, Jr.
A few years back, when the Bright Lights EP started garnering rapturous reviews, I picked up a copy. It did not disappoint, but left me wanting more, so I made a mental note to check him out live, if I could. I did, and saw — and heard — what all the hype was about. I converted as many friends as I could, sending breathless emails with YouTube clips, saying things like “This is the real deal” and “We’re talking potential once-in-a-generation-type-talent.”
I saw him live, again, this time with some of those friends. They still thank me for ensuring they caught the soon-to-be superstar in a small-ish venue. We were hooked on him like a hipster on a can of PBR. Eventually, his big label debut, Blak and Blu, was released in late 2012. Perhaps inevitably, it was a mixed affair: Overly produced at times, too calculated by half in others, it seemed like product being tampered with by a kitchen full of PR chefs, all convinced they knew the best way to break Clark into the big leagues. It felt like what it was: an overly ambitious, uneven document, trying too hard to be all things to all people.
But it still was the official introduction of a major new voice. My mantra to naysayers was simple and succinct: You have to catch this dude live. The last time I saw him, at a larger venue in DC, he opened up with the slow burning “When My Train Pulls In”, and he had the crowd ready to lap up his sweat from the first second. He commands the stage like no one else has in a long time. Tall, thin, dark and cooler than a root cellar in December; he has the unique charisma that comes from not trying too hard. Of course you don’t have to try hard when it oozes out of you like steam from a sewer grate. And what’s it like to see him live, to believe with your eyes what your ears are hearing? Pyrotechnics and sick skills backed with tons of soul and feeling you can’t fake.
And now, finally, we have proper documentation of what Clark sounds like, live and unfettered. This is the album many of us, including those who will understand in short order, have been waiting for. This is, in fact, about as perfect an album as anyone could hope for, at once an introduction to Clark and a summation of what he’s accomplished. And what has he accomplished, exactly? Well, he’s made it possible to use the words “blues” and “21st Century” with neither irony nor resignation.
If it’s too easy, equal parts lazy and unimaginative, to invoke Jimi Hendrix, it is nevertheless obligatory. It’s not necessarily because of the guitar prowess (Clark is formidable, to be certain, but no need to commit sacrilege) or his vocal gifts (although he has an extraordinarily sensitive, at times laconic delivery that, coupled with his sometimes explosive solos, is emotionally devastating). Rather, it is because he mixes blues and rock, incorporating folk and jazz-y elements as well as anyone, arguably, since Hendrix—or at least Shuggie Otis. Plus, it would be wrong to label him, like Hendrix before him, a “rock” musician, since he is so clearly steeped in the blues tradition and can shift seamlessly between feedback-frenzied rawness and cool, old school soul and funk.
Where Hendrix used the blues as a launching pad for his otherworldly excursions, Clark is content to (mostly) stake his claim in traditional terrain, adding a unique imprint courtesy of those aforementioned solos. On this outing, we hear an inexhaustible mind matched by relentless energy: On multiple numbers, the solos are not aesthetic showcases so much as statements of purpose. Covering Albert Collins’ “If Trouble Was Money”, Clark seems to be suggesting, Yes, you may recognize this song, but you won’t recognize this. Over and over, he puts his own distinctive stamp on everything he touches, be it original, cover, or point of departure (see Hendrix’s uncoverable “Third Stone From The Sun”).
Some highlights include “Next Door Neighbor Blues”, which, with its slide guitar and rambling pace, will remind some of what both the Black Keys and the White Stripes have done, with varying degrees of success. Scorcher “When My Train Pulls In” is perhaps the best example of the way Clark impeccably blends past and present, at times taking tradition and handling it with care, love, and a welcome dash of irreverence, at others taking the idiom for a test drive and never coming back. Both “Three O’clock Blues” and “Things Are Changin’” feature top-notch playing (and fantastic support from second guitarist Eric “King” Zapata) and some so-laid-back-they’re-almost-languorous vocal stylings that quickly become addictive. There are, believe it or not, more definitive versions to be found online, but this take on “Please Come Home” is far superior to the too-saccharine studio version, as Clark’s (convincing) falsetto bookends the tasteful shredfest that comprises the meat of the number.
An already terrific disc is put over the top by a handful of tour de forces. “Numb”, again featuring some tasty and filthy slide work, creeps through the smoke and detonates into a deconstruction of every blues cliché those shades-and-fedora wearing imitators have been milking for decades. There are now multiple, all enjoyable, renditions of his signature song “Bright Lights”, and the latest installment serves as confirmation that only a handful of players can pick up an electric guitar and make these sorts of sounds happen. “Blak and Blu” is a rare achievement, using weary menace to push past exhaustion into defiance. It’s just one man, one instrument, one voice and several thousand spellbound fans. “When the Sun Goes Down”, an appropriate album-closer, is once again a solo showcase, unfiltered and without a net. Clark kills it, illustrating that a soft-spoken young man can — and often should– let his playing and singing do the talking.
To recap: If you have a chance to check him out live, do so. Like most of the better acts, especially in the jazz and blues circles, he needs to be seen to be appreciated, and believed. Believe this: he’s not going anywhere and he should be a major force in the American music scene for the foreseeable future. For now, this latest, most welcome installment, will tide us over until he returns to make us believe, all over again.
Postscript: If this album entices anyone to check out Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Albert King or, hell, Jimi Hendrix, Clark deserves extra accolades for being a brilliant ambassador for the legends whose torch he carries with style and pride.