The crowd at the Moore Theater in Seattle is eager. Warmed up. Ready. Music is piped through the PA and although the cheering has started, the stage remains dark. After a few minutes a sole, bright white spotlight drops on the stage. Eventually, out of the shadows emerges the-man-who-is-going-to-save-the-blues, the fedora-sporting, leather-jacketed Gary Clark Jr. Head slung low, a nearly imperceptible nod to the crowd, and then, the much-anticipated first chord.
With that one resonating note, Clark has the crowd in his clutch, and it’s not long before he’s driving them down a gravel road, churning out one crunchy note after another as he leads them to the bright lights of the big city. But as the Austin, Texas ax-slinger knows, those lights can be blinding — and damning.
“Bright lights, big city going to my head/I don’t care, no/’Cause you don’t care/Start off with the bottle/End it up with the bottle/Taking shots, waiting on tomorrow/Trying to fill up, was hollow/You gonna know my name”
The loud locomotion that’s taking place onstage with Clark and his band is a far cry from the muted, more personal appearance he made earlier in the day at Emerald City Guitars. Armed with a vintage acoustic, Clark wailed and brayed just as forcefully as he did in front of a theater full of fans, turning out “The Healing,” “Our Love” and “Church” with a cry that echoed the souls of a thousand bluesmen past.
His trailblazing band kicks up a psychedelic dust storm of monstrous proportions
While Clark could be viewed as part of the progeny of blues rock revivalists that span from the White Stripes and Black Keys to Alabama Shakes and Benjamin Booker, he boasts more authenticity than those acts. Seeing the two sides of him — solo and backed by his band — cements this because Clark seems keenly interested in keeping the tradition alive rather than simply stealing from it.
The bleeding, burning blues Clark delivers — echoed in the furious churn of “Travis County” (which could equally serve as an anthem for Black Lives Matter) and the dusty, sauntering rhythms of “Next Door Neighbor Blues” — sound as if Clark’s channeling the ghosts of a bevy of Delta musicians, but the blues isn’t his only, or strongest, artistic stroke.
You see, the man’s got soul. You can see it in the way his hips sway as he sidles up to the lip of the stage, grinning ever so slyly at fans, but the real killer is you can feel it. When Clark delivers the tender ballad “Our Love,” you can feel that soul echoing in the chambers of your heart, pulling it this way and that, never crushing it but swelling it with emotion. It’s this switch-hitting from back alley blues growls to high falsettos that marks the peaks and valleys of Clark’s best work.
Clark, who won a Grammy in 2013 for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Please Come Home,” laced his latest album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim with horns, organs, backing vocals and even a spoken word snippet that flits over the album’s opener like a firefly alighting on a cotton ball ready to burst.
None of those accoutrements are necessary when Clark is onstage. The hard funky edges of “Cold Blooded” and “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round” have Clark coaxing sharp notes out of his six string, obliterating any need for a horn section.
The bleeding, burning blues Clark delivers sound as if he’s channeling the ghosts of a bevy of Delta musicians
By the time he launches into “When My Train Pulls In,” Clark kicks up a swirling squall. His trailblazing band leaves behind a psychedelic dust storm of monstrous proportions. And just when you think you’ve got a firm grip on that magic carpet ride, Clark spins on a dime and kicks it back to the juke joint for the chugging, boiling “Don’t Owe You a Thang.”
If Gary Clark Jr. is the future of blues and neo-soul rock, then the future is looking pretty bright.