Gary Clark Jr. continually sharpens the core of what he does without losing the musical curiosity that makes him an engaging artist.
Since his major-label signing, Gary Clark Jr. has alternated between studio albums and live albums. While it's an unusual approach, it makes sense for Clark, giving him the opportunity for his explorations in the studio while tracking his frequent shows and mirroring his interest in live recordings. The two kinds of albums reveal two sides to the artist, though they aren't disconnected, and as Clark's latest release Live/North America 2016 shows, gives him the chance to get to the heart of his music.
In the studio, Clark has blended a variety of sounds. He's first and foremost a blues guitarist, but he's worked with plenty of rock, R&B, soul, and, less frequently, even some hip-hop. Blak and Blu sounded like an artist reaching out in all directions, which made for an engaging but hardly defining release, walking a fine line between open creativity and lack of focus. On stage, aided by frequent touring and plenty of festivals, Clark has become (or always was) a beast. He plays a more honed sound, not sacrificing his diverse influences, but driving more in one direction.
Although his previous live album came just two and a half years ago, Clark has a reason for a new one. Culled, obviously, from last year's touring, this disc draws heavily from 2015's The Story of Sonny Boy Slim and shows his evolution as a blues player. The classic Texas touches are still there, as are the Chicago style that often goes unremarked upon. Clark's born the burden of guitar hero and blues savior well, letting his solos increasingly serve the song or make coherent statements without needing to shred to get there.
Two older tracks -- “When My Train Pulls In” and “Numb -- mark highlights of the album, as they likely always will for Clark's sets. The comparisons to Hendrix tend to be overstated (and often hinge more on “black blues-rock guitarist” than on interest in sonics, tone, etc), but “When My Train Pulls In” comes from that lineage, and it chugs from the first note. Clark sounds his sharpest here, and on closer “Numb”, a fuzzy number that's willing to grind and build into something intense. These performances speak to the quintessence of Clark's art.
Clark has never been afraid of smooth R&B, but that's an element that doesn't work as well for him. His voice is fine, but his high singing on tracks like “Our Love” could use more body and doesn't quite do what it needs to do; it's a reminder that we're listening to a guitarist. Even so, Clark and his ever-tight band turn it into a memorable performance. There's a collaboration with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles waiting to happen that would be otherworldly.
Whether in slow or uptempo songs, the group knows how to develop a groove. A song like “Shake” carries it on a boogie and opener “Grinder”, which has strong soloing, relies as much on the propulsion underneath as it does on Clark's expressive playing.
That sort of sensibility, rather than just Clark's chops, seem to be a part of Clark's continual refining of his sound. He was a star even before he was a star and he could have just cut a bunch of Clapton/Vaughan/Guy sort of records. He could have let himself wander off into distracting genre forays. Instead, we see him continually sharpening the core of what he does without losing the musical curiosity that makes him an engaging artist.