For many blues fans, their introduction to Texas bluesman Gary Clark Jr. came via a feature review of the guitarist's four-song The Bright Lights EP in Rolling Stone magazine. The unusual mainstream coverage of a blues artist – quick, when was the last time that Rolling Stone reviewed anything from, say, deserving blues artists like Tommy Castro or Janiva Magness – created a buzz around Clark that pushed the EP to number one on the blues chart and onto the Top 200 pop chart.
While it's encouraging that Rolling Stone recognized, if only for a moment, the talents of a bluesman like Clark, it's even more earth-shaking that he be signed to Warner Brothers. The major labels have more-or-less ignored blues music since Stevie Ray Vaughan's tragic death, and to the best of my knowledge, Eric Clapton remains the closest thing to a bluesman on the Warner roster. In fact, it was Clark's performance at the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, playing alongside Clapton, that won the young bluesman a major label deal. Hype will only get you so far, however, and while comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Guy are great, you have to get it down in the grooves to convince the hardcore blues fan.
Gary Clark Jr.'s The Bright Lights EP
The EP's title track does, indeed, stomp and stammer across the blues-rock landscape like some bastard child of Hendrix and SRV, a heavy rhythmic soundtrack used as a backdrop on top of which Clark embroiders his textured, brilliant, and blustery fretwork. Clark's vocals are enchanting, mesmerizing in the same maddening way that R.L. Burnside used to affect listeners, while his guitarplay is riffish, imaginative, and simply sonically devastating. There are no tentative steps or youthful naiveté here, Clark a ten-year veteran of the competitive Texas blues scene that has held his own on the Antone's stage in Austin.
From the perspective of blues guitar, there's a lot going on in Clark's performance on "Bright Lights," from high-flying, scorched-earth blues-rock solos that tear the roof off the sucker to more nuanced, tone-heavy and melodic leads. Above the din Clark keeps singing "you're going to know my name," and it comes across as more of a statement of fact than a hollow boast. As a song, "Bright Lights" is an impressive introduction, and one that sets the table for even more considerable fare.
Don't Owe You A Thing
If "Bright Lights" is a potent blues-rock thunderclap, by contrast, "Don't Owe You A Thing" is North Mississippi Hill Country blues writ Texas large, Clark's hypnotizing circular guitar riff straight out of the Burnside/Junior Kimbrough playbook while the song's crashing, bashed in drumbeats and ringing chords would hold its own on Friday night in any Mississippi Delta juke-joint. A near-perfect fusion of Hill Country, Delta, and Texas blues traditions, the ramshackle arrangement, reckless performance, and amped-up up-tempo performance grabs the listener by the ears and refuses to let go.
The second half of The Bright Lights EP consists of two live, solo acoustic tunes that, while comparing starkly to the electric fire and brimstone of the two opening tracks, nonetheless display a different facet of Clark's talents. "Things Are Changin'" is a soulful romantic ballad with finely-crafted lyrics and an overall gentle vibe that reminds of Ben Harper or Eric Bibb. The bluesy "When My Train Pulls In" is the stronger of the two acoustic tracks, offering up a powerful guitar performance that underlines Clark's warm vocals and poetic lyrics. It's the fretwork here that will capture your imagination, though, Clark's fingers scatting and bopping across the fretboard with fevered abandon, resulting in a complex performance of many colors.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
All the current hype aside, Gary Clark Jr. is the real deal people, a blues artist of considerable artistic depth that holds the audience in the palm of his hand. While Clark's guitar-playing skills have received the lion's share of acclaim – and deservedly so – the man is also a vocalist of considerable soul and nuance, and a mature wordsmith with fresh perspective on the social and emotional themes often found in blues music. While The Bright Lights EP is designed as nothing more than a taste of the man's talents in advance of a full-length album release, it's a stunning debut from a young bluesman that should have fans of the genre dancing in the street. (Warner Brothers Records, released August 9, 2011)