It’s Friday night and Gary Clark Jr. is relaxing in a downtown New York bar, calmly sipping a beer while everything around him is in chaos. Hard rock blares from the sound system behind him, a motorcycle roars by in the street, and yet it’s barely audible over the din of the next table, where an after-work foursome has just burst into a full-throated paroxysm of laughter. Unfazed, the 28-year-old guitar hero actually seems bemused by the cacophony, as though it’s all just part of the whirlwind journey he’s been on for the last few years, but one that really began back in his hometown of Austin, Texas, when he was still just a lanky teenager.
“I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t grown up there,” he says, thoughtfully stroking his chin. “As a kid, I used to just walk down Sixth Street and I fell into it—the vibe, the culture, the influence, the music. And when I first started on the music scene, I fell in with the blues. That was the only place that I knew of where I could get up on the stage and play with perfect strangers and make something happen. From there, I learned about Clifford Antone and Antone’s club. That whole scene definitely set up a solid foundation for me.”
Which might be putting it mildly. Clark has already been widely touted as the hottest singer- guitarist to emerge from Texas since Stevie Ray Vaughan and Billy Gibbons. In some quarters, he’s even referred to as “the savior of the blues.” But he doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the accolades— in fact, let’s tell it like it is: The blues are just part of what makes up Clark’s sprawling repertoire. Armed with his trusty cherry red Epiphone Casino and his road-battered Fender Vibro- King, he can ignite an explosive riff like “Bright Lights,” the title cut from last year’s teaser EP, and reel off choice licks like Hubert Sumlin on the “Killing Floor.” Or he can dial back the mood to the introspective vibes of “Things Are Changin’,” channeling the sweet guitar melodies of Curtis Mayfield and the soulful tenderness of singers like R. Kelly and Raphael Saadiq. You might not know it from his hard-rocking stage show, but Clark is a modern chameleon of musical styles.
“A friend of mine called me musically schizophrenic,” he quips with a chuckle. “I’ve even been asked if I was confused. But it got to this point where I was sitting around with all these demos that I’d recorded on my own. I hadn’t really played them for anybody, and they weren’t straight-ahead blues at all. They were just in my head, things that were haunting me. It’s like you gotta get ’em out—I figure what the hell, it’s just music, you know? It would be torture for me to hold that inside and not just let it out. So that’s what happened, and all this stuff ended up on one album.”
That album is the longawaited Blak and Blu, coproduced by Clark with hip-hop icon and bassist Mike Elizondo and rock impresario Rob Cavallo. It started off, Elizondo recalls, as a mission to capture what Clark did live—as heard in songs like the snarling “Numb,” which simulates a rocket from the heart of the British second wave—but evolved to include more complexly arranged and programmed songs like “Blak and Blu,” a funky D’Angelo-ish departure into neo-soul.
“He’s not a one-trick pony,” Elizondo insists. “That’s what I think is most exciting about Gary’s debut. He’s an incredible guitar player, but he’s also a true songwriter and a visionary. He sees himself as an artist who can have no boundaries, and I think he’s proven that. We didn’t have to stick to one particular sound, so we could veer off into a couple of different areas. Gary is the glue for songs like ‘Blak and Blu’ to work seamlessly with the ones like ‘Numb’ and ‘When My Train Pulls In.’ It’s all because his vocals and his guitar playing pull everything together.”
Of course, some comparisons are more obvious. Clark has been covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” for quite a while now. On Blak and Blu, he folds his quirky, one-chord psychedelic fugue arrangement of the song into a medley with “If You Love Me Like You Say,” made famous by Albert Collins. Clark isn’t quite the pyrotechnical genius that Hendrix was (at least, not yet), but it can’t be lost on the few still alive who knew Jimi personally that the two guitarists share a laid-back, shy, almost aloof demeanor—a stark contrast to their take-no-prisoners delivery on stage. Jimmie Vaughan must have sensed it when he first caught Clark’s show at Antone’s (and subsequently struck up a friendship with him), and Eric Clapton must have felt a twinge of nostalgia for the days of Swinging London when he booked Clark for the 2010 Crossroads Festival—a date which, arguably more than any other, sealed Clark’s acknowledgement by the heavyweights, including the legendary Buddy Guy.
Beyond the hype, though, at a time when revivalism—in the hands of such artists as Jack White, the Black Keys, Alabama Shakes, and many more—has become the driving force in rock, Clark brings something unusually fresh to the picture. He can conjure up the Mississippi Delta or the electric church with equal authenticity, but he also folds his many influences, from hiphop to silky soul, into his sound with a natural ease that can’t be taught, let alone faked. Maybe it comes from spending most of his adolescence woodshedding with his parents’ records and anything else he could lay his ears on—including Nirvana, the Ramones, the Beatles, and everything in between. Whatever it is, it’s Gary Clark Jr.’s moment, and there’s nowhere else to go but up.