GARY CLARK JR.
Warner Brothers (2 CDS)
Other than the cover shot of an endless sea of concertgoers amassed to experience the phenomenon of Gary Clark Jr., Live offers no overt hint as to the roaring monster lurking within its two whoa!-listen-to-that discs. Hulking huger than life, Clark’s guitar dishes a shellacking for the ages, one of those seminal albums which will be forever referenced by everyone from adrenaline junkies to blues-rock maniacs to dirty-decibelmongers to that army of guitarists (air shredders included) out there going to school on it right now.
Not bad, given that in the short time since hitting the big-time radar, Clark has accomplished much. Tremendously much, in fact: Hometown Austin, Texas, has had a Gary Clark Jr. Day. John Sayles clairvoyantly cast him as the young fire-handed blues guitarist in his 2007 film “Honeydripper.” From Rolling Stone to Living Blues, magazines have lit up with praise for the freshly crowned “Chosen One,” the “New Voice for the Blues.” Plus, the 31-year-old has already won one Grammy (2013’s Best Traditional R&B Performance)—so far. Not to mention, his major-label albums—2010’s Bright Lights EP and especially 2012’s full-length Blak and Blu— induced mass whiplash from turning awestruck heads so quickly. Yet if you thought those studio works were marvels, Live is the ideal pulse-pounding way to witness the brutal slugfest between Clark’s Epiphone and its poor maxed-out Fender amplifier.
Out here, distanced from the recording booth, fending onstage with nothing more than the bare essentials—bass, drums and King Zapata’s second guitar (which gets in its ferocious licks too)—any studio sheen or subtlety melts away under the extreme heat of raw immediacy and that gloriously cruddy fuzztone crunch. “Blak and Blu” sheds its hip-hop; “Things Are Changin’” toughens up its swoon. Yet by retaining its loverman falsetto, “Please Come Home” still vulnerably yearns like a modern-day R&B ballad.
Out here, firebreathers rule. That goes for the dirt-old Mississippi jukehouse staple “Catfish Blues,” an equally wicked slog through “Bright Lights,” the Chuck-Berry-on-steroids rip of “Travis County.” Shearing off massive chunks of sound with every gash down the neck, a bottleneck slide devours “Next Door Neighbor Blues” in between stomping out riffs. However, none of that firebreathing clutters with excess notes. Extra amperage? Guilty as charged. Overindulgent fretsmanship? Never. So when the coda to “When My Train Pulls In” lights off, its electric hurricane spews just the right deluge of screaming bends and whirlpool wah-wah to echo the narrative’s angered disgust.
Sorrow gets borrowed from B.B. (a particularly supple “Three O’Clock Blues”), Albert Collins (“If Trouble Was Money”), and even Depression-era Leroy Carr (“When the Sun Goes Down,” unplugged). But best of all is when Clark dredges his own battered heart, brooding quite tremendously about prison cells, rock bottom desperation, and gunpoint greetings. “Numb,” for instance, crushes, psychologically as much as sonically. He’s formidable on all blues fronts.
Like Albert King atop the Fillmore bandstand, Jimi up on the platform at Woodstock, or Stevie Ray commandeering the El Mocambo, Clark extends their lineage here, claiming the legacy with honor and volume on anonymous stages strewn across his 2013-2014 tour. This is precisely the kind of awesome that signs up lifelong fans.
By Dennis Rozanski