Friday, December 24, 2021

Archive Review: Gary Clark Jr.’s Live (2014)

Gary Clark Jr.’s Live
Texas blues guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. made quite a splash with his full-length 2012 major label debut Blak and Blu. The album’s mix of incendiary fretwork, soulful vocals, electric blues, and old-school R&B with a hip-hop edge turned many people’s heads, announcing that a major new talent was on the scene. Clark was “discovered” by Eric Clapton, who invited the young guitarist to the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, his subsequent history-making performance (captured on the DVD of the event) gaining Clark a major label contract and a certain degree of notoriety.

Still, as good as Blak and Blu might have been, many still had doubts – especially the blues cognoscenti, who were hoping for another Stevie Ray Vaughan clone (as if we didn’t already have enough of those ragdolls gigging around…) – while traditionalist shook their collective heads in mild disdain. Truth is, Clark was already a seasoned veteran by the time that Clapton enlisted the guitarist to bring a shot of vitality to the Crossroads event. Some 26 years old in 2010, Clark had been playing in and around Austin, Texas since he was a young teenager, and he already had three independently-released albums under his belt by the time he took the stage at Crossroads.  

Gary Clark Jr.’s Live

In spite of his experience, Clark’s Blak and Blu came as a revelation to many of us, and the album’s accessibility, along with the talent on display in the grooves, helped enlist a legion of new blues fans to the genre. Blak and Blu rose as high as number six on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, and dominated the blues chart for over a year from either the number one or number two position. Still, many critics put down the album’s overly-slick production qualities, with producer Rob Cavallo sanding down every rough edge to make the songs pop-radio friendly. Too, many questioned Clark’s dedication to the blues in the face of the album’s rock and hip-hop influences. Nobody stopped to think that the guitarist was simply having fun with his sonic palette and the possibilities his talents enable. No matter, ‘cause Clark’s two-disc Live set should put paid to any critic’s concerns.

The opening chords of Live should put to rest any doubts about Clark’s blues authenticity. Tackling the traditional “Catfish Blues,” credited to Muddy Waters by way of Robert Petway, the young guitarist imbues the performance with plenty of Delta mud, but embroiders the antique arrangement with bluesy, psychedelic-tinged guitar that owes as much to Jimi Hendrix as it does to any Mississippi string-bender. Clark proves his songwriting bona fides with the original “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” a stomping, snortin’ blues-rock dirge with huge dinosaur guitar riffs, distorted guitar, anguished vocals, and finely-crafted story-song lyrics that one could easily hear Howlin’ Wolf wailing away on while Hubert Sumlin tears up the guitar behind him.

Three O’ Clock Blues

Clark displays his flexibility as an artist and performer with the raucous “Travis County,” a rollicking, rockabilly-tinged, Chuck Berry-styled runaway train that lyrically features another tale of woe while the band choogles along at 90mph, drummer Johnny Radelat keeping time with the biggest of beats. The performance is enhanced by dueling solos, rhythm guitarist King Zapata bringing the twang while Clark adds the blistering heat. The highlight of the first disc, however, is Clark’s nuanced cover of B.B. King’s classic “Three O’ Clock Blues.” The young guitarist perfectly captures the master’s blend of jazzy licks and bluesy ambiance, his tortured vocals channeling plenty of emotion and heartbreak. It’s an inspired performance, and one that proves that the blues run deep in Clark’s soul.

The second disc of Live opens with the thunder and lightning of Clark’s “Ain’t Messin ‘Round,” the band playing an extended instrumental intro that’s heavy on the martial rhythms while Clark and Zapata throw around guitar licks like laser beams. Clark’s vocals are smooth, with just a hint of fracture around the edges, evoking memories of old R&B crooners like Otis Redding or Solomon Burke, but the soundtrack is pure Southern soul with a bit of rock ‘n’ roll. Clark further shows the depth of his blues knowledge with a spot-on cover of Albert Collins’ “If Trouble Was Money.” With a shimmering six-string intro that sounds like sun glinting off a sheet of ice, Clark lays down a vibe every bit as frosty as the Iceman once did. Clark plays it straight, mimicking Collins’ existential angst while still managing to bring a contemporary relevance to the song – after all, neither trouble nor money ever go out-of-date.  

Third Stone From The Sun

One of the high points of Blak and Blu was Clark’s mash-up of Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” with Memphis bluesman Little Johnny Taylor’s “If You Love Me Like You Say” (a song also covered by Collins, and Danny Gatton too, among others). The fusing of two apparently different styles (and eras) sound like it would be a ramshackle construction at best, but in Clark’s hands, he finds the energy at the heart of both and welds them together with his incredible fretwork. The fluid psych-drenched instrumentation of “Third Stone” evolves organically into a funky Bluff City backbeat, Clark’s delivery of Taylor’s tale of love-gone-bad perfectly framed between heartbreak and bravado, the argument further bolstered by Clark’s shape-shifting solos. By contrast, Clark’s “Please Come Home” is a lovely throwback to 1950s-era R&B, a doo wop inspired vocal showcase worthy of the Platters or the Drifters, but with red-hot guitar notes in place of the backing harmony vocals.

The title song of Blak and Blu is of a similar cloth as the “Third Stone/If You Love Me” hybrid, Clark drawing inspiration from jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron in the creation of a mesmerizing, altogether haunting performance that sparks and fades like a dying star. “Blak and Blu” is a strong song on the studio album, but on stage it takes on an otherworldly vibe, Clark’s wistful, almost melancholy vocals are punctuated by sharp shocks of guitar, the song depending entirely on the strength and charisma of the performer to pull it off. Much like the studio album, the song slowly unravels into “Bright Lights,” a blustery hard rocker that hits your ears like a 2x4 plank by comparison, the guitars getting louder and heavier, the vocals exploding out of your speakers with passion and force. This is a man that has a story to tell, and you’d best shut up and listen…and if you don’t, well, the song’s serpentine riffs and squealing feedback will make sure you pay attention. It’s a powerful performance, Clark and Zapata trading solos like battling kung fu masters, bassist Johnny Bradley and drummer Radelat providing a heavyweight rhythmic canvas behind the guitarists for them to paint on.    

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Gary Clark Jr.’s Live offers 15 electrifying tracks, and there’s not a duff performance among any of ‘em! Stripped of the studio gloss provided Blak and Blu in order to appeal to the iPod generation, these songs sizzle and burn in a live setting like hot embers in a barely-constrained bonfire. Live allows Clark and his band to stretch the material out to its natural-born length, with plenty of room for Clark’s ballistic solos, and with audience feedback driving the band to dig that much deeper and bring their best to every song. This is the way that Gary Clark, Jr. was meant to be heard – live and unadorned with studio gimmicks or slick production tricks. It wouldn’t be a sin if Clark decided to record his next studio album in front of a live audience but, in the meantime, if you’ve wondered what the buzz around Clark is all about, Live will set you straight in no uncertain terms. (Warner Brothers Records, released September 23, 2014)

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