photos by Scott Stewart
In a time when inner city kids are bringing back the eye-burning neon colors and synthesized beats of the ‘80s…and hipsters are using the money they should have spent on razors and shaving cream on old bicycles, film cameras and leather-bound notebooks, Gary Clark Jr. is “taking us back” via a different–and far muddier–road. The destination is the roots sound of Chicago blues from the 1940s and 50s, channeled in his live shows not just with a well-worn, full-bodied guitar tone and soulful voice, but a certain electricity that transports the listener to a moment when the feedback of amplified blues was still an unexplored mode of expression.
Even within the field of authentic blues, Clark is managing to cut himself a distinctive niche. He and his band reside in Austin, TX and are also often placed side-by-side with Stevie Ray Vaughn, the infamous Texas bluesman. A nice sentiment, but there’s something older–more soulful–going on behind the wound nickel-plated strings of Gary’s Epiphone Casino. He channels Freddie King and Muddy Waters, sure, but I’ll venture to say that his guitar sings more like Etta James, knocking you over with his powerful riffs. Gary puts the fun back into the blues and old school R&B. He makes you want to turn on his record, lay down on the floor of your high-school bedroom, close your eyes and just experience what he’s trying to tell you.
That may be because he’s spent his 10,000 hours on the floor himself. Gary explains that although he had an axe-yielding mentor or two growing up in the Austin music scene, he was more interested in “sitting around playing records (The Jackson Five, Curtis Mayfield, Hendrix) trying to learn by ear.” In fact, Gary paid homage to Michael Jackson, singing a cover of ‘I Want You Back’ on the tribute album ‘100 Miles from Memphis,’ alongside Sheryl Crow.
That phonograph-ready vibe runs throughout the material for his new, full-length album, expected to hit record store in the spring of 2012. There’s no title yet, but he was able to say that they’re doing most of the recording at the band’s home studio in Texas and the band will “wrap things up in L.A. this fall.” Since his two most recent albums have been short EPs, both containing a 50/50 split of raging blues-rock tunes and nostalgic R&B tracks that are reminiscent of a young Sam Cooke, I asked Gary if he’s going to choose one style from the two or three that can be heard on his recent records. He replied, “As much of a mix as possible. I’m going to try to get away with all that I can on this record.”