The only thing growing faster than Gary Clark Jr.’s acclaim -- among fans, critics and iconic musicians alike -- is the scope of his talents and tastes. And with it, so grows the difficulty in even describing Clark as an artist. He’s something of a moving target: Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what he does, new dimensions are revealed. Among the latest is an unprecedented collaboration with Nas, the pair commissioned for music by ESPN for NFL coverage, a venture coming while Clark is preparing for a 2012 season in which he’s booked on every major U.S. festival, from Coachella ...
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December 17, 2012
The only thing growing faster than Gary Clark Jr.’s acclaim -- among fans, critics and iconic musicians alike -- is the scope of his talents and tastes.
And with it, so grows the difficulty in even describing Clark as an artist. He’s something of a moving target: Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what he does, new dimensions are revealed.
Among the latest is an unprecedented collaboration with Nas, the pair commissioned for music by ESPN for NFL coverage, a venture coming while Clark is preparing for a 2012 season in which he’s booked on every major U.S. festival, from Coachella to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage gathering to Lollapalooza to Bonnaroo.
It’s an all-is-possible reach to go with his all-embracing artistry. One day he’ll be stealing the show at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival -- handpicked by Clapton himself for an unheard-of spotlight set by a virtual unknown, with the icon eagerly taking on a mentor role to the youngster.
Another he’ll be teaming with Alicia Keys and the Roots on a moving benefit concert version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Keys had already been imploring her fans to check him out: “You know who’s killing it? Gary Clark Jr.” she’d said. “Hurry up and Google [him] before you’re late, because he is, like, so special.”
Then he’s at a White House command performance for the Obamas alongside Mick Jagger, B.B. King, Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy -- prompting the Music Fan-in-Chief to remark, “He’s the future.”
It all comes very naturally to the young musician, a triple threat guitar-slinger, emotive singer and involving songwriter, a virtuoso on all fronts but one who always honors feel over chops. The results are sonic journeys that are equally soulful and psychedelic, in the deepest sense. Whatever the terms used, the music is ever-thrilling and involving.
“I was really inspired all at once to do all kinds of different things,” he told his hometown newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, citing an array of inspirations from Skip James to Otis Redding to Albert King, Freddie King, to Nina Simone to Jimi Hendrix to Outkast to Green Day, Nirvana, The Strokes to Marvin Gaye and just about anything/everything in between.
His tour-de-force debut Bright Lights EP and even his jaw-dropping concerts are only starting points for where he’s headed. His coming Warner Bros. Records debut album, on which he’s working with produced Mike Elizondo (whose credits are fittingly eclectic, running from Dr. Dre to Fiona Apple to Mastodon to Eric Hutchinson) is harnessing the talents and ambitions without limiting the vast possibilities.
So where is he headed? “I’m not exactly sure myself,” he laughed.
It’s his guitar chops that tend to get the first notice, with The New York Times saying no less than “He may be the next Hendrix.” His sound is round and raw, coming up from the very earth; his facilities are startling, fleet and fluid, though foremost soulful.
But it takes only an instant to realize that the key trait he shares with such giants as Hendrix, Clapton or Beck is his voracious love of all music of power and soul, and that rare ability to internalize and personalize it all into a truly distinct, organic whole.
“Owing as much to Kurt Cobain and the Ramones as Buddy Guy and John Lee Hooker, indebted to hip-hop and psychedelia,” Rolling Stone declared, “[Clark] is grounded in tradition while standing on the brink of change.”
Taking up guitar at age 12, Clark quickly found his way into the fertile Austin scene, taken under the wing of long-time club owner and artists advocate Clifford Antone and such local stalwarts as Jimmie Vaughan. Antone put the youngster on stage with such blues giants as James Cotton and Hubert Sumlin. Vaughan and others taught him about moving beyond the legends, both going back to the originators who influenced them, but also embracing the spirit of innovation that separated such groundbreakers as Cream and the Stones from the crowd. He made the most of the support and became such a shining presence that Austin declared a “Gary Clark Jr. Day” in his honor while he was still in his teens. And by 2007 he was named the city’s best blues artist and rock guitarist at the Austin Music Awards. In fact, he’s won those same categories every year ever since.
At the same time he was tapped by writer-director John Sayles to play the role of Sonny Blake, a fictional bluesman fittingly challenging the conventions of the gritty ‘50s circuit, in the film Honeydripper.
The buzz found its way to Clapton, who invited Clark to play on the 2010 Crossroads Festival in Chicago, an event showcasing the most distinctive guitar talents of a variety of genres. Clark’s appearance with Doyle Bramhall II and Sheryl Crow opened a lot of ears to his talent. Clapton then took Clark along as his opening act on a tour of Brazil that fall.
All along, the artists to whom he’s been drawn are those who don’t fit in genres, but are genres unto themselves. He’s taken their lessons to heart. On the 4-song Bright Lights EP, while there he touches on some classic styles, including dirty blues and sweet soul, he unfailingly transcends ant such categorization. If the title song “Bright Lights” (produced by Warner Bros. Records chairman Rob Cavallo, whose production credits include Green Day, the Dave Matthews Band and My Chemical Romance) might slot somewhere between The White Stripes and the Black Keys, the live acoustic “Things Are Changin’” cozies up to both Bill Withers and Ben Harper. If “Don’t Owe You a Thang” is a white-knuckles roadhouse ride, then “When My Train Pulls In” is a stunning blues-as-raga excursion.
There’s so much more to come. We may not know what it will be, but we know it will be astounding.
Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes concluded in his full page dedicated, 4-star lead review of Bright Lights, “The most exciting about Clark is that he could steer his career in any direction -- or every direction.”
Perhaps the most succinct summation of Clark’s musical vision and what lies ahead can be taken from a recent interview where he imparts: “Music is movement. It all moves together, like lifetimes—a continuum. It’s all part of the same fabric in the end.”