I’ve been reading about Gary Clark Jr. for months now. The Austin Chronicle has been…chronicling…his every move of late, and speaking in fairly reverent tones. But Clark is a bluesman, and frankly, I think Austin’s a bit overrun with the blues. Walk down 6th Street any given night of the week and you’ll hear at least a half-dozen passable but generally uninspired blues groups playing to the drunken masses. Even knowing Austin’s historic relationship to the blues (Stevie Ray, Jimmie Vaughan, Arc Angels, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Antone’s, etc, etc, etc) I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to hear another 12-bar blues singer. (If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m hardly a blues aficionado and clearly have a lot to learn about this particular musical form.) Yet, when I read in last week’s Chronicle that ?uestlove was tweeting his adoration of Clark after Clark sat in with the Roots on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, I knew I had to look into him. (I hold ?uestlove in the highest regard; he is easily one of the smartest contemporary pop musicians and has impeccable taste that crosses genre boundaries.)
Though he’s only now breaking through nationally, Clark has been prominent in Austin for nearly a decade. He finally won broad acclaim thanks to his performance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival last year. (It’s an awesome video.) I downloaded a few loose tracks from last year’s Gary Clark Jr. EP that I found on the Internet, but nothing prepared me for the power I encountered upon buying the Bright Lights EP that Clark just released earlier this month through Warner Bros. The production on this new version takes an already killer song to new heights. This isn’t the blues the way I normally think of it; this is just a dirty, vicious rollicking stomp. Clark’s guitar tone is as chilling as his voice is smooth. The moment at the 11 second mark where the full band kicks in around the rhythm guitar is something special – you just know that you’re in for a hell of a song, and Clark and his band deliver. The other full band song on the EP, “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” is a much faster blues-rock song that bites even harder. It’s easy to see why Rolling Stone, classicists that they are, gave this EP four stars out of five. This is music that my dad and I – the Rolling Stone and Pitchfork generations – can both enjoy and appreciate equally.
Truth be told, I haven’t even really listened to the back half of the EP – two live, solo acoustic songs – because those first two are just so damned good. The once-through I’ve given to each suggests that they are two really good tracks as well, but I am partial to the full band sound. The solo songs showcase Clark’s virtuosity as he manages to sound like he’s playing two or three guitars at once at different times, but the full rock band sound of “Bright Lights” and “Don’t Owe You a Thang” shows he’s more than a skilled player – he’s a songwriter, arranger, and frontman capable of knocking it down with the best of them. You can buy the EP on iTunes for a mere $4 (totally worth it), and check Clark when he gets back into town for the Friday of ACL.