Gary Clark Jr.: Big-Tent Blues

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Three years before he released his 2010 EP Bright Lights, five years before he released his brand new album, Blak & Blu, long before Rolling Stone hailed him as the latest modernizer of the blues, Gary Clark Jr. gave a clear warning of what was coming. In 2007, in movie theaters across the nation, Clark starred in the film Honeydripper as Sonny, a fictional character who modernized the blues back in 1950. He did it by building the first-ever solid-body electric guitar and using it to give the country blues a new jolt of volume, buzz and speed. This mythical figure—based on everyone from Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry, from Les Paul to Ike Turner—turned the blues into rock ’n’ roll.

Clark is doing something similar in 2012. These days the blues are even more marginal as a genre than they were in 1950, paid little attention outside small pockets of intense devotees. Clark, however, grew up just outside Austin, one of those pockets, and got his start as a hardcore blues guitarist at Antone’s, that city’s top blues club, much like Sonny had come up as a country bluesman in the rural juke joints of Arkansas. But just as Sonny was exposed to a much larger world by being drafted into World War II, Clark was exposed by the mere fact of being a teenager in the 1990s, confronted by rock, funk and hip-hop every time he turned on an electrical device.

“Of course, I heard all the pop and R&B that kids my age listened to,” Clark acknowledges. “But while my friends were running around, I was laying back, listening to the blues show on KUT [the University of Texas’s public-radio station]. I’d never heard music like that before. It was a weird experience to be a young kid into something that the kids who’d been my friends all my life weren’t into. I had this dual life in a way. I’d come back to school and they’d say ‘What’d you do over the weekend?’ I’d say, ‘I saw Jimmie Vaughan and James Cotton at Antone’s,’ and they’d say, ‘Who?’

“The blues were a way to express myself. Other kids could do it through sports and other things, but I was shy and never good at football. Then I found the blues, and it was a way to get over my shyness, a way to tell stories. It made sense to me. At the same time, when I was at home, I was listening to other things; it just so happened that I went deep into this one particular thing. The two sides of my life have always been separate in a way, so on this album I thought I’d bring them together.”

You can hear the two sides of Clark’s life slapping together on “When My Train Pulls In,” the second track from Blak and Blu. It begins with a two-bar blues guitar lick, thundering like a Led Zeppelin or Rage Against the Machine riff. “Everyday nothing seems to change,” Clark warbles in his reedy tenor; “everywhere I go I keep seeing the same old thing.” He then demonstrates how the “same old thing” can be transformed into something new. His first solo builds a wall of sound atop the opening riff, but the second solo introduces sci-fi squeaks and squawks unimaginable in a pre-computer world. It’s as if the train has lifted off the tracks and turned into a rocket ship.

And yet the song wouldn’t have the same power if it weren’t rooted in the blues. So much of contemporary pop and hip-hop is triumphalist music, songs that proclaim the vocalist has more skills, more bling and more sex than all those posers, players and suckah MCs out there. It’s all an adolescent fantasy of invincibility—a 20-year-old’s version of a six-year-old pretending to be a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Where’s the music that can give voice to the doubts and insecurities that we all actually feel? Clark found the answer in the blues.

On “When My Train Pulls In,” for example, the narrator laments how “a smiling face” will “stab you in the back as soon as you turn.” In “The Life,” he sings about being “strapped for cash, standing on the block, drunk as hell, trying to avoid the damn cops, and this is how it is sometimes when you fall off track.” The backing track is bouncy R&B, but the vocal is pure blues. On “Numb,” he confesses that his women problems have left him defeated and without feeling. The guitar explodes and splatters, but the repeating lines come straight out of a vintage 16-bar blues.

“There’s this saying, ‘Blues is three chords and the truth,’” Clark points out. “The blues contain vulnerability, sadness, joyous moments, rebelliousness, all of it. When you hear the blues, you can see into somebody’s soul. There’s a lot of fun stuff out there, but a lot of other stuff needs to be talked about too.”

A lot of indie-rock, of course, is full of doubt and insecurities as well. But it too often laments a situation without providing hope that the obstacle can be hurdled. And in its relentless quest for novelty, indie-rock too often cuts itself off from musical history and the evidence that people have overcome similar challenges in the past. The blues provide a dual message: life is full of problems, but those obstacles can be defeated. And in Clark’s hands at least, the blues marries the past to the future. He ends his new album with the ancient-sounding acoustic blues, “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” but many of the preceding tracks sound like the blues from Mars.

“The record is a journey through a mix of things,” Clark explains. “At the end, ‘Next Door Neighbor’s Blues’ brings it back to square one with Leadbelly and Son House. A lot of the things I’m doing on the record stem from that in a way. A song like ‘When My Train Pulls In’ is a I-IV-V blues, a roots vibe but with different instrumentation, bigger and louder. With the technology available today, people can put their own twist on the blues.”

The image of a train pulling into a station echoes Clark’s first appearance in Honeydripper, written and directed by John Sayles. As the steam locomotive pulls away from the depot in Harmony, Alabama, a tall, skinny black kid with a tan fedora, a green army duffel bag and a guitar case is standing by the side of the tracks. That’s Sonny, played by a 23-year-old Clark, a clean-shaven, handsome kid whose shy smile soon charms China Doll, the daughter of Pinetop Purvis (Danny Glover), the piano-playing owner of the Honeydripper juke joint in town. Before long, though, Sonny is arrested for vagrancy by the white sheriff (Stacy Keach) and put on a work gang picking cotton.

“I was playing a gig in Austin when John Sayles came down to SXSW looking for a young black guitarist who could maybe act a bit,” Clark explains. “He called me for an audition and I got the part. It was a story about the way music and the culture was changing in the 1950s in Alabama. That was a long time before I was born, but there were parts I could relate to from talking to my grandmother about picking cotton and the way folks were treated back then. Also from being able to sit around backstage at Antone’s with guys like Hubert Sumlin and Buddy Guy and hear what it was like trying to make it as a musician in those days. All those stories I was able to use in the movie.”

In the movie, the debt-ridden Pinetop is about to lose his bar unless he can have a big night with the New Orleans star Guitar Sam. But when word comes that Sam is holed up in Little Rock, sleeping off a drunk, a desperate Pinetop hatches a plot to spring Sonny from prison and pass him off as the out-of-town star. Pinetop and his sidekick Maceo (Charles Dutton) are ready to turn off the electricity and run off with the money if Sonny is unconvincing.

This sets up Clark’s big scene at the end of the movie. His hair straightened into a conk by a smitten China Doll, he takes the stage in a resplendent gold jacket with his guitar—a solid block of trapezoidal wood—strapped around his neck and plugged into a homemade amplifier without a case. He kicks off “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” the Roy Brown blues hit that Elvis Presley remade for Sun Records, and it sounds so good, so new, it’s as if rock ’n’ roll were being born before our eyes. The electricity stays on and the cabin-like, rural nightclub jumps to life as dancers flood the floor. Sure, it’s exaggerated, but that’s how myths should be portrayed, and Clark’s charisma and guitar licks make it almost plausible.

Honeydripper might have been Clark’s breakthrough, but because it could never break out of the art-film circuit, it was no more than a small stepping stone. The breakthrough came when Eric Clapton heard about the young guitarist, who was already a local hero in Austin and in blues circles even if pretty much unknown elsewhere. The British guitarist invited the 26-year-old Clark to be the youngest act at Clapton’s 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival. The DVD from that festival caught the eye of Rob Cavallo, Green Day producer and the chairman of Warner Bros. Records.

Cavallo was so impressed that he signed Clark to the label and quickly released a four-song EP, Bright Lights. Cavallo produced the title track; a second studio track was pulled from Clark’s latest self-produced album, and the two live, acoustic performances included a version of “When My Train Pulls In.” Meanwhile, Clapton took Clark along as the opening act for his Brazilian tour that fall, while Cavallo and co-producer Mike Elizondo began the groundwork for Clark’s first album on a major label. After three albums on his own Hotwire Unlimited label, after 11 years as the toast of Austin’s club scene, Clark’s train had finally pulled in, and he was ready to climb aboard.

“When Warner Bros. gave me a chance to get out and play my music all around the world,” Clark says, “I was ready because I’d been patient. I hadn’t wanted to jump ahead; I’d explored and experimented with things till I found my voice. That way I could grow like a man and figure some things out. When I was ready for something else to happen, it happened. I’m a little more confident now than I would have been at 22. It was the right thing to do, to do a slow build. If I hadn’t taken that time I wouldn’t have been prepared as I am now.”

Blak and Blu is mercifully free of the tics that usually afflict young, hot-shot guitarists. Clark doesn’t try to prove how many notes he can play in eight bars; his solos are more about texture, melody and emotion than speed. He doesn’t move too quickly to the high, wailing notes that get attention; he’s content to keep his solos down in his vocal range, as if they were just an extension of his singing. Likewise his vocals aren’t all screaming and hollering; he’s willing to purr seductively or drily tell a story when that will be more effective.

One reason it took so long for the full-length album to emerge after the teaser EP was that Clark had to convince Warner Bros. that he would not be pigeonholed as a blues-rocker but was determined to integrate all his musical interests into his sound. The chassis for each song would always be the blues, but the top might be anything from a VW bus (“Travis County”) to a big-finned Cadillac (“Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round”) to a Prius hybrid (“Blak and Blu”).

“I told them, ‘This is really what I want to do,’” Clark says. “‘I don’t want to do just one thing; I want to do all of this because this is who I am,’” he says. “It’s just being true to myself. If I just did one thing and not the other, I would be unhappy. I wanted to be who I am in my life and in my music, open and honest. I didn’t want to deny anything—just put it all out there.

“It also has a lot to do with where I come from. Austin is a musical melting pot, where people mix and mingle from all different genres. It’s not unusual to sit in on a gig and play a rock ’n’ roll lick and sit in on another gig and play a country lick. During SXSW, I went from sitting in with Ryan Bingham, a country artist, to sitting in the same night with a hip-hop artist, Babu Blakes. In Austin, it’s not a big deal; it’s just part of the thing.”

Between the fictional Sonny and the real-life Clark, there’s a long list of guitarists who have modernized the blues into a new kind of rock ’n’ roll. The names most often cited are Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, but the name most often left off the list, Prince, has as much influence on Blak and Blu as any of the others. Clark was born in 1984, the year of Purple Rain, and grew up listening to Minneapolis’s androgynous wunderkind, perhaps the most underrated guitarist of his generation.

“Prince was definitely a big influence,” Clark confirms, “as a singer, a producer, a songwriter and a guitar player. I listened to his records a lot as a kid and I was always amazed. I can hear the influence on this new record. Life is not always loud and crashing; sometimes it’s soft and sweet, so it’s natural for me to make a record that way.”

You can hear that influence most nakedly on the new album’s title tune, which borrows Prince’s idiosyncratic spelling. The track begins with nervous funk guitar and watery synth over a bare-bones kick drum and snare. The synth starts playing a horn part and Clark’s tenor comes in with a seductive croon that sounds very familiar. His guitar stays in the background as the arrangement emphasizes the keys and vocal, casting a spell of romantic intimacy over the bluesy plea, “Don’t leave me blak and blu.”

“You Saved Me” sounds like one of Prince’s slow jams with the guitar distorted and brought up in the mix. “Glitter Ain’t Gold (Jumpin’ for Nothin’),” co-written by Clark, Texas guitar hero Doyle Bramhall II, Beyonce songwriter Ali Tamposi, Vines producer Justin Stanley and Eminem bassist Mike Elizondo, is the album’s one obvious bid for mainstream radio. But it also suggests what Prince might sound like if backed up by the Strokes’ garage-rock.

Blak and Blu has been marketed as a modern guitar-hero album, but the very first thing you hear on the opening track “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round” is a soul-music horn section blasting out a riff that could have come from a Sam & Dave session in 1965. A little later, on the song “Travis County,” Clark describes an arrest in Austin’s jurisdiction with rave-up rockabilly guitar and piano triplets that could have come from a Jerry Lee Lewis session in 1955. On “Please Come Home,” Clark sings in a dizzying falsetto over doo-wop oohs and ahs in a ballad begging an absent lover to return as if part of a Clyde McPhatter session in 1954.

“When I came back from doing the Honeydripper movie,” Clark says, “they had straightened my hair and given me an old-fashioned suit. I looked like I was from that era, so I wrote that song.”

On each of these tracks, a modern element sooner or later insinuates itself into the mix: the Prince-like, high-tenor crooning on “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round,” the hip-hop-like drum break on “Travis County,” and the Claptonesque guitar solo on “Please Come Home.” Nonetheless, it’s still remarkable to encounter a 28-year-old artist who not only knows so much about pre-Led Zeppelin music but has also found ways to incorporate that vocabulary into new music.

“I have to give it up to Clifford Antone and Jimmie Vaughan,” Clark says. “They not only supported me all those years; they also gave me a knowledge of the music’s past. That’s the foundation. I’m just a curious guy; I want to know the history behind everything. Why does this sound like this? I feel more connected to the music, knowing the history.”

Like Sonny in Honeydripper, Clark knows that history never stops flowing. What we’re doing today is history in a decade. Just as Sonny transformed the acoustic blues into electric blues, so did Clark’s childhood favorites such as Dr. Dre and Tupac transform funk and XXXXXXX into hip-hop. Just as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters were cutting-edge innovators who became history, the same thing will happen to Prince and OutKast. The same thing will happen to Clark himself.

“One of the first blues artists I ever I heard was Albert Collins on KUT’s Monday night blues hour,” Clark recalls. “There was something about his intensity, his tone that got me; I’d never been hit by a guitar like that before. The songs were so swampy, so grooving; that reverb hits you right in the chest. I guess that’s why they called him the Iceman. After I heard that, I went to a store right away and got his record.

“But I also remember listening to a Wu-Tang record with an Albert Collins sample, with him playing one of his characteristic licks. I was interested in how they made that work, how they looped it and made it part of the beat. It made the connection for me; it brought things together. That’s how I started writing songs; I’d put a drumbeat together, play a bass over it, then a guitar over that and sing a vocal over that. My demo songwriting process is the same as hip-hop.”

Clark’s knowledge allows him to mix and match different historical eras at will. This is most obvious on the album’s longest track, a medley of Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” and Little Johnny Taylor’s “If You Love Me Like You Say.” It begins with three minutes of smoldering hints at Hendrix’s most famous instrumental, a galaxy of slo-mo sci-fi sounds that aren’t Hendrix’s inventions but rather Clark’s own in the spirit of his role model. After those three minutes, though, a chicken-scratch rhythm guitar enters, as if Hendrix’s spaceship had landed in a cotton field near Pinetop Purvis’s Honeydripper juke joint in Alabama.

Here are two very different versions of the blues slapping together: the blues as a psychedelic space flight meets the blues as a Saturday-night barroom dance. Clark draws not from Taylor’s original 1964 single but from Albert Collins’ 1980 cover version, and asks his woman over the funky backbeat, “If you love me like say, why you treat me like you do?” It’s a reminder that far-flung existential problems are never far from more down-to-earth problems concerning a lover and a job. The medley has been a staple of Clark’s live shows for years, often stretching out to 20 minutes. For the album, though, Elizondo edited it down to under 10 minutes and found chattering computer noises to reinforce both the majestic Hendrix melody and the jittery Taylor rhythm.

“Me and my friends were messing around at a gig one night,” Clark remembers, “and we didn’t have any more songs to play. So I started playing ‘Third Stone from the Sun’ and then I dropped in ‘If You Love Me Like You Say.’ I had heard the Hendrix song when I first started playing guitar, and I thought it was unbelievably great. I didn’t know that was possible on the guitar; the sounds he used were otherworldly. I wanted to contrast it with something, and I’ve always played a lot of Albert Collins.

“It’s fantasy and reality together. You dream about going somewhere else, of wanting to be somewhere else, and then there’s a reality check: Here’s what you got. It seems like a natural connection to me.”

That’s what Clark is up to on his major-label debut: pulling together past and future, realism and surrealism, hard times and high hopes, country and city, reminding us all that synthesis has always been basis of rock ’n’ roll—and that the blues have always been the glue.