Album Review: Gary Clark Jr. - Blak and Blu
If you haven’t heard the hype, Gary Clark Jr., an Austin native and esteemed, veteran bluesman at the young age of 28, is at the front of the line as the heir to Jimi Hendrix, and he has won gushing praise from the likes of The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, the Austin Music Awards and countless other outlets. Seeing Gary Clark Jr. play a set at Antone’s in Austin isn’t just another night at the bar dancing along to the grooves of one of the countless local talents in “The Live Music Capital of the World.” Witnessing Clark shred at Antone’s has been a rite of passage for Austinites for more than a decade. During that time, his star has risen well beyond the 512, and it has positioned in front of the eyes and ears of countless thousands as a mainstay on the summer festival circuit.
After years of watching him priming for the big time, countless industry giants believe now is the time for Gary Clark Jr. to explode. As fate would have it, Clark signed with Warner Bros. and is stepping into the spotlight on his major label debut. The album, titled Blak and Blu, has the potential to be a variety of things to vastly different people, and that’s perhaps the coolest weapon Clark has kept hidden from the masses.
Much like his native city, Clark is a melting pot of great musical influences. Just as Austin is declared “The Live Music Capital of the World” not “The Live Blues Capital of the World,” Clark is a talent raised on a hodgepodge of genre-busting heroes, not just SRV and Jimi. Those expecting the blues will get it copious amounts on Blak and Blu, but they’ll also find Clark digging into his love of soul, R&B, and radio-ready hip hop. Of the thirteen songs, more than half have appeared in Clark’s catalog on Hotwire Unlimited. He retools many of them for the major label jump, and he introduces newcomers to some of his jams that he has been playing for more than five years. If Clark wanted to be the biggest blues act on the planet, he could unequivocally do it by playing variations of “When My Train Pulls In” for 40 minutes and call it a wrap. Simply put, he is easily one of the most exciting guitarists, voices, and stage presences to emerge in years. That’s why his decision to dive into so many different genres on his debut album is a feat worth applauding, even if you would prefer a consistent 40 minutes of monster riffage and 12-bar blues.
Clark kicks the album off loud and funky on “Ain’t Messin’ Round” with a bouncing rhythm and boisterous brass section, while his buzzsaw guitar rages below the surface. Soon enough, he delightfully explodes with exactly the kind of inspired solos you’d expect from the anointed savior of rock. It’s a thrilling opener that, much like the songs of fellow, young Austinite and funky bluesman Black Joe Lewis, is equally as indebted to James Brown as to Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble.
“When My Train Pulls In” and “Bright Lights” are two Clark essentials that have appeared on previous releases, and they are every bit the brand of Hendrix-worthy blues rock any fan could ever ask for. The same is true of his immaculate rendition of “Third Stone From the Sun / If You Love Me Like You Say.” Clark will make your jaw hang open when he plays each of them live, and Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple) and Rob Cavallo (Green Day) succeed mightily at capturing the sweaty, live energy on record for all of them. Another rollicking track that should win any blues lover’s heart is the barroom stomper sing-along “Travis County.” The whole energy of the song is abundantly Austin, and it zooms along like a The Dukes of Hazzard chase down I-35.
If you’re listening to the album’s tracks in order, the title track is likely the first that will catch you off guard if you’ve come looking solely for the blues. The beat from the outset of “Blak and Blu” will tip you that you’ve entered a genre shift. By the time the keys and Clark’s sultry vocals kick in, you are in deep in the thick of a ‘90s R&B vibe. The truth is Clark has voice and the passion to pull off the transition, and he does. It may be imperfect (the infant cries as the song fades out are a bit much), but his new digs sound warm and winning even when they don’t completely hit the mark.
There is zero doubt Clark will catch flak from some of his most longstanding evangelicals for the chameleon coat he sports on Blak and Blu, especially regarding the radio-ready R&B of “Blak and Blu” and mellow hip hop of “The Life.” The truth is I would’ve been over the moon had Clark solely unleashed a 60-minute guitar assault of 12-bar blues and violent howls on Blak and Blu. However, I respect the man more than ever before for having the balls to play whatever music he desires, irrespective of genre, on his first impression to the masses. That takes guts and honest-to-God faith in your competencies and influences.
The irony of any of the “savior of the blues” evangelicals calling Clark a sellout for the myriad hats he throws into the ring on Blak and Blu is that he made the most un-sellout move imaginable by doing that very thing while riding such hyperbolic hype. There are precious few blues and rock artists in music today who are as talented, compelling and charismatic as Gary Clark Jr. is with a guitar in his hand. However, there are even fewer musicians alive who can be any one of those three adjectives when taking a stab at diverse sounds. Right now, it appears Gary Clark Jr. seems less satisfied being the savior of any one genre of music than the multitudes would like him to be. Good for him! Only time will tell if we’ll be fortunate enough to see him succeed by crossing genres and bringing different personalities and backgrounds together. It’s been a hell of a long time since we’ve seen anybody pull that off. That Gary Clark Jr. is willing step up to the plate to take a swing at that on his first at-bat in the big leagues speaks multitudes about the man behind these damn fine songs.
Blak and Blu is out now via Warner Bros.
This post first appeared on The Silver Tongue.