Gary Clark, Jr.: Live Proves that Hearing is Believing

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Over the years I’ve found myself defending bands who cover classic blues, ranging from the good (Yardbirds, Animals), to the occasionally good (Rolling Stones, Beatles), to the occasionally great (Led Zeppelin), to… Eric Clapton.

One thing I tend to repeat, without cynicism: Even the most earnest if unconvincing renditions are worthwhile if they serve as a gateway to the source material. If, for instance, someone hears Jack White doing an overly stylized cover of Son House or the Black Keys doing remarkable service to the still-unjustly-unheralded Junior Kimbrough, or even the aforementioned Mick Jagger mumbling Mississippi Fred McDowell, it’s all to the greater good. Quick, raise your hand if you knew about Muddy Waters or Willie Dixon before you heard Led Zeppelin or the Allman Brothers, or Howlin’ Wolf before you head the Doors cover of “Back Door Man”.

And so on.

And so, what to do when you not only hear faithful, bordering-on-unbelievable covers of blues classics, but a young (!) artist who is doing more than anyone in decades (Robert Cray comes to mind, but in a Rated PG way, and Stevie Ray has been gone, alas, for a very long time) to recreate, reimagine and rechannel the old blues grooves into the here-and-now? Enter Gary Clark, Jr.

A few years back, when the Bright Lights EP started garnering rapturous reviews, I picked up a copy. It did not disappoint, but left me wanting more, so I made a mental note to check him out live, if I could. I did, and saw—and heard—what all the hype was about. I converted as many friends as I could, sending breathless emails with YouTube clips, saying things like “This is the real deal” and “We’re talking potential once-in-a-generation-type-talent.”

I saw him live, again, this time with some of those friends. They still thank me for ensuring they caught the soon-to-be superstar in a small-ish venue. We were hooked on him like a hipster on a can of PBR. Eventually, his big label debut, Blak and Blu, was released in late 2012. Perhaps inevitably, it was a mixed affair: Overly produced at times, too calculated by half in others, it seemed like product being tampered with by a kitchen full of PR chefs, all convinced they knew the best way to break Clark into the big leagues. It felt like what it was: an overly ambitious, uneven document, trying too hard to be all things to all people.

But it still was the official introduction of a major new voice. My mantra to naysayers was simple and succinct: You have to catch this dude live. The last time I saw him, at a larger venue in DC, he opened up with the slow burning “When My Train Pulls In”, and he had the crowd ready to lap up his sweat from the first second. He commands the stage like no one else has in a long time. Tall, thin, dark and cooler than a root cellar in December; he has the unique charisma that comes from not trying too hard. Of course you don’t have to try hard when it oozes out of you like steam from a sewer grate. And what’s it like to see him live, to believe with your eyes what your ears are hearing? Pyrotechnics and sick skills backed with tons of soul and feeling you can’t fake.

And now, finally, we have proper documentation of what Clark sounds like, live and unfettered. This is the album many of us, including those who will understand in short order, have been waiting for. This is, in fact, about as perfect an album as anyone could hope for, at once an introduction to Clark and a summation of what he’s accomplished. And what has he accomplished, exactly? Well, he’s made it possible to use the words “blues” and “21st Century” with neither irony nor resignation.

If it’s too easy, equal parts lazy and unimaginative, to invoke Jimi Hendrix, it is nevertheless obligatory. It’s not necessarily because of the guitar prowess (Clark is formidable, to be certain, but no need to commit sacrilege) or his vocal gifts (although he has an extraordinarily sensitive, at times laconic delivery that, coupled with his sometimes explosive solos, is emotionally devastating). Rather, it is because he mixes blues and rock, incorporating folk and jazz-y elements as well as anyone, arguably, since Hendrix—or at least Shuggie Otis. Plus, it would be wrong to label him, like Hendrix before him, a “rock” musician, since he is so clearly steeped in the blues tradition and can shift seamlessly between feedback-frenzied rawness and cool, old school soul and funk.

Where Hendrix used the blues as a launching pad for his otherworldly excursions, Clark is content to (mostly) stake his claim in traditional terrain, adding a unique imprint courtesy of those aforementioned solos. On this outing, we hear an inexhaustible mind matched by relentless energy: On multiple numbers, the solos are not aesthetic showcases so much as statements of purpose. Covering Albert Collins’ “If Trouble Was Money”, Clark seems to be suggesting, Yes, you may recognize this song, but you won’t recognize this. Over and over, he puts his own distinctive stamp on everything he touches, be it original, cover, or point of departure (see Hendrix’s uncoverable “Third Stone From The Sun”).

Some highlights include “Next Door Neighbor Blues”, which, with its slide guitar and rambling pace, will remind some of what both the Black Keys and the White Stripes have done, with varying degrees of success. Scorcher “When My Train Pulls In” is perhaps the best example of the way Clark impeccably blends past and present, at times taking tradition and handling it with care, love, and a welcome dash of irreverence, at others taking the idiom for a test drive and never coming back. Both “Three O’clock Blues” and “Things Are Changin’” feature top-notch playing (and fantastic support from second guitarist Eric “King” Zapata) and some so-laid-back-they’re-almost-languorous vocal stylings that quickly become addictive. There are, believe it or not, more definitive versions to be found online, but this take on “Please Come Home” is far superior to the too-saccharine studio version, as Clark’s (convincing) falsetto bookends the tasteful shredfest that comprises the meat of the number.

An already terrific disc is put over the top by a handful of tour de forces. “Numb”, again featuring some tasty and filthy slide work, creeps through the smoke and detonates into a deconstruction of every blues cliché those shades-and-fedora wearing imitators have been milking for decades. There are now multiple, all enjoyable, renditions of his signature song “Bright Lights”, and the latest installment serves as confirmation that only a handful of players can pick up an electric guitar and make these sorts of sounds happen. “Blak and Blu” is a rare achievement, using weary menace to push past exhaustion into defiance. It’s just one man, one instrument, one voice and several thousand spellbound fans. “When the Sun Goes Down”, an appropriate album-closer, is once again a solo showcase, unfiltered and without a net. Clark kills it, illustrating that a soft-spoken young man can—and often should—let his playing and singing do the talking.

To recap: If you have a chance to check him out live, do so. Like most of the better acts, especially in the jazz and blues circles, he needs to be seen to be appreciated, and believed. Believe this: he’s not going anywhere and he should be a major force in the American music scene for the foreseeable future. For now, this latest, most welcome installment, will tide us over until he returns to make us believe, all over again.

Postscript: If this album entices anyone to check out Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Albert King or, hell, Jimi Hendrix, Clark deserves extra accolades for being a brilliant ambassador for the legends whose torch he carries with style and pride.

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Gary Clark Jr.: Seeing Is Believing

It’s only happened on two other occasions, before last Friday night.

In 2001, seeing Mike Patton in person for the first time, with his brand new side project Tomahawk (at the Black Cat in D.C. which, before the overdue smoking ban, was like standing in a dark closet with a nicotine-scented dry-ice machine). They came out and played “God Hates a Coward” and I turned to my date and said “I’m good. We can go now.” We did not, of course, but I truly would have been 100% satisfied with just those 3 minutes. To get an hour-plus of that passion, musicality and showmanship was one for the ages. I was less than 20 feet from the stage.

(More on Tomahawk, HERE, check out #39.)

In 2008 I caught Living Colour on one of the opening nights of their tour for their then not-yet-released “comeback” album The Chair in the Doorway. (My subsequent review of that album can be found HERE.) They played “Burned Bridges” and it was both an opening salvo and shot across the bow: the guys came out en fuego and the smoke did not stop rising until five minutes after they left the stage. Reid’s solo, and I happened to be on the right side of the stage to see it in, well, living colour, remains one of the most ridiculous sixty seconds of virtuosity I’ve ever worshipped in real time. It left me shivering with delight and disbelief, knowing they were locked in and about to operate at this level for another couple of hours. (They did.) I could easily have left right then and felt satisfied and spent (I didn’t.)

Footage of Reid in action is instructive, but the sound quality is not optimal; make sure you check out the authentic version, HERE.

A lot more about this band, and seeing them live (in ’93!) HERE.

 

Which brings us to Gary Clark Jr.’s performance at D.C.’s 9:30 Club last Friday night. He opened up with the slow burning “When My Train Pulls In”, and he had the crowd ready to lap up his sweat from the first second. This dude commands the stage like no one else has in a long-ass time: tall, thin, dark and cooler than a root cellar in December, he has the unique charisma that comes from not trying too hard. Of course you don’t have to try hard when it oozes out of you like steam from a sewer grate.

See what I’m saying?

When I saw him, the first time, last year, my impression was that he displayed the type of playing –and talent– we see from a handful of players every 10 years or so. Pyrotechnics and sick skills backed with tons of soul and feeling (and history) that you can’t fake. I was absolutely gobsmacked, and immediately hooked on him like a hipster on a can of PBR.

I look forward to enjoying him  for a long, long time. For now, he seems to be more like a blues or jazz artist in that he shines live and to fully appreciate him, it needs to be in real time. That’s not to say his studio work thus far is underwhelming, but, well, it’s not nearly as effective in my opinion. The intensity and connection is lacking. Certainly, that is true on literal levels (duh): seeing an act live will bring intensity and a literal connection that a digital file played on a digital device can’t deliver. But this is not typically the case with rock music, where so much of it sounds better on album than in person. Quick: name me one rock band that consistently sounds better live.

One example that fairly leaps to mind: The Black Keys. Like just about all rock acts, they sound much better in the studio than they ever do live. And this is understandable on several levels: for one, it’s exceedingly difficult to convey that sound (one guitar, one voice, one drummer) to a large arena. If you could watch the Black Keys –who recorded the bulk of their early work live, in a basement, proving that they could “do it” without studio trickery or production pyrotechnics– in a small room forever, they could be legit live contenders. As such, they struggle (in my opinion, having seen them in venues small and large) to put it down, effectively, in person. (More on The Black Keys, HERE, check out #5.)

It says a great deal about Clark’s ability and acumen that he brings the noise, on several levels, when he’s performing. Plus, it would be wrong to label him a “rock” musician, since he is so clearly steeped in the blues tradition and can shift seamlessly between feedback-frenzied rawness and cool, old school soul and funk.

(For the record, I do think his major label debut, Black and Blu, is more than a little overproduced. It’s understandable, if expected: he’s trying to break in with a sound that is sufficiently accessible to a wider audience, and I certainly don’t begrudge him that. I’ll simply say, if I were handed his new album and his EP, and asked to assess him, I’d probably say: lots of potential. Having seen him live (twice) and with the benefit of myriad clips courtesy of YouTube, I can confirm that the potential is largely realized and he has already arrived; it’s just a matter of being in the same place at the same time.)

If you have a chance to check him out, do so. He sounds fine (thank you very much) in a studio setting, and I encourage you to grab his new disc. But like most of the better acts, especially of the jazz and blues idioms, he needs to be seen to be appreciated, and believed. Believe this: he’s not going anywhere and he should be a major force in the American music scene for the foreseeable future.

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Five Songs From 2011

Here are five songs from albums that did not make my personal Top 10 for 2011 (stay tuned for that list…):

5. Gary Clark, Jr: “Bright Lights Big City”.

This is a live version of the title track from his EP.

Having read and heard about him throughout the year, and seeing the goods in living colour on YouTube (check out the evidence here), I was dutifully impressed when I picked up the Bright Lights EP. But I am here to tell you, having seen him just this past weekend at a tiny venue: this dude is the realest of deals. I will be extremely surprised if 2012 is not a breakout year for him, and it can’t come soon enough. Word to the wise: if you have a chance to see him live, do it. You will regret it if you don’t, because he won’t be playing small venues too much longer.

4. Florence & The Machine: “Strangeness and Charm”.

Lots of hype here, and this new album does a half-decent job living up to it. If it’s a tad over-produced and all over the place at times, it is also audacious and totally unique. And the young and very sexy Florence Welch has an epic set of pipes. On this song I find her/their approach fully satisfying, as it evokes the best of ’80s pop and cuts it with a bleeding-edge sensibility. I hear Kate Bush; I hear Siouxsie Sioux; I am getting some Bjork and even some P.J. Harvey, all funneled through a Fiery Furnaces meets early MTV vibe. But mostly I am hearing –and feeling– the siren song of a wonderfully strange and charming new talent.

3. Mastodon, “Black Tongue”.

I wrote, happily, about this band in 2009 when they had their coming-out party into the semi-mainstream with Crack The Skye. Here is some of what I had to say: Some men let their freak flags fly. Some men get tatted up and sport full arm sleeves. Other men get tattoos on their fucking foreheads. (Whatever else you can say about Brent Hinds, he does not have commitment issues: inking your forehead is commitment; he’s like a head-banging Queequeg.) You only do shit like that if you are in this for the duration, which means that half-stepping is simply not an option. Either that or you’ve done a lot of drugs. Looking at the dudes in this band, you know it is all of the above. And then you listen to them. These guys somehow balance a full-on testosterone assault with brilliant writing and playing (and singing, as most of the members share the vocals at times), and deliver a product that is both thoughtful and bruising.

For me, their latest, The Hunter, is a bit all over the place (not in a good way) and seems more haphazard then inspired, but you can’t accuse these guys of faking it. They come out en fuego on the opening track, “Black Tongue”. On one hand, too bad the entire album isn’t this great; on the other hand, the band may have combusted if they attempted to maintain this intensity for a full session. These cats are music as cage match: every man for himself with all instruments and vocals brawling to come out alive. This is art as confrontation; love it or loathe it, you cannot be indifferent to Mastodon.

2. Tom Waits, “Talking at the Same Time”.

His last one, Real Gone, cracked my Top 50 of the previous decade. Seven years is a long time to wait between albums, so anticipation –and expectations– ran high for the follow-up, Bad As Me. I find some of it consistent with everything I love about Waits (the eccentricity, the honesty, and the guitar of Marc Ribot), I find some of it random or worse, and I find too much of it a horse that’s been beaten well-past submission. The Captain Beefheart affectations are tolerable in small-to-moderate doses, but anytime you spend too much time thinking of another artist that’s seldom a good sign. But what do I know: many of the faithful (for whom, admittedly, Waits can do no wrong) thought this album was yet another masterpiece. I’m not feeling it, but I am certainly grateful that this American icon is refusing to age gracefully.

1. Paul Simon, “Love and Blesssings”.

Another one that had some people saying Simon hasn’t lost his fastball and other people saying “Who is Paul Simon?”

Okay, no one would ever say that. Although you can’t fault the younger generation for looking at Simon, who is aging with neither the charm nor the hairline of Tom Waits, and wonder why he is wearing so much make-up these days. (And has he had work done? Is he trying to avoid looking like Grandpa from The Munsters or is that what he’s going for? Either way he should just accept that he was never much of a looker in the first place and age like a man. Ease off on the powder, pal; you wrote “I Am A Rock” for Christ’s sake…)

Anyway, the new album is, to quote Larry David: Pretty…pretty…pretty…pretty…pretty good.

I am pleased that Simon is still inspired and on a song like “Love and Blessings” he proves that he still has it going on (and major props for sampling “Golden Gate Gospel Train” by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet).

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