Gary Clark Jr. : When My Train Pulls In

Stuart Thornton on January 22, 2013

Photo by Frank Maddocks

The matchstick-thin Gary Clark Jr. walked onto the stage at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco this past February to a sold-out crowd singing him “Happy Birthday.” As a cloud of electric guitar noise filled the air in the historic venue, Clark and his backing band quickly laid into the Hendrix-like rock-blues of “When My Train Pulls In.”

During the evening, the audience hooted – and even screamed – as the 28 year old nimbly threaded guitar solos through a set of originals and covers. On an extended jam that folded in Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” the lyrics of Little Johnny Taylor’s “If You Love Me Like You Say,” some Tom Morello-styled guitar scratching and a drum solo, the entire audience seemed to be bobbing their heads at the stage along with a new guitar deity.

Clark’s electrifying blues-rock songs, his versatile vocals and his incendiary guitar solos galvanized the crowd into awe-inspired adulation. What’s interesting is that few in attendance knew much, if anything, about this young Texan musician. He hadn’t released his major label debut Blak And Blu on Warner Bros. Records yet though they goosed consumers’ initial excitement with a four-song The Bright Lights EP. (Prior to signing to Warner Bros., Clark put out two albums and an EP on the Hotwire label. (Half of the songs from Blak And Blu are re-recorded versions of songs previously released.)

While Clark’s only recently gained national recognition, he’s been popular in Austin for years. Locals such as music promoter Clifford Antone (owner of famed club Antone’s) and blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan Clark (brother of Stevie) saw something special in the young player and offered to help. Clark had racked up multiple Austin Music Awards, and, in 2001, when the guitarist was a mere 17 years old, Austin’s mayor proclaimed May 3 as “Gary Clark Jr. Day” in the city.

It was the potent performance of his original “Bright Lights” at Eric Clapton’s 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival that first broke Clark to wider audience (and got Warner Bros.‘s attention). During the number, the crowd, which had seen countless guitar solos already, stirred to life as Clark repeated the lyrics “you are going to know my name by the end of the night” and let loose with two lit fuse solos. (Fellow Texan guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, who used to play in Clapton’s band, introduced Clark to Clapton, who then invited Clark to the festival.)

“I wasn’t really nervous,” Clark says from Austin, where he’s putting the final touches on Blak And Blue about the invitation to play Crossroads. After a long pause, he confides, “Yeah, I was nervous.”

He continues reminiscing about the transformative experience: “It was the most people I’ve played in front of. All of these [famous guitar] guys are going to be within earshot of what I’m doing. So leading up to the gig was torture for me. But, once I finally got up there and did it, it was an amazing moment.”

Though the backstage at Crossroads was crowded with his music idols, Clark says he didn’t interact much with the musicians at the festival. “I kind of kept to myself,” he says. “I felt like a new kid at school. Like, on day one, I’m supposed to be here, but I don’t really think I quite fit in.”

Soon after Crossroads, it became obvious that things had changed for Clark. “People were curious who I was and where I came from and what I was all about,” he says.

Photo by Dean Budnick

While Clark has been touted as the next big blues act, Blak And Blu’s 13 tracks come on like a playlist from a friend with a diverse music library. “Travis County” is a slab of Southern rock transfused with R&B, while “Numb” is a successful marriage of a thick grunge rock guitar and blues sentiments. The title track highlights Clark’s soulful multi-tracked vocals over samples of Gil Scott Heron’s “Pieces of a Man” and Albert King’s “As the Years Go Passing By.” It all ends with the killer acoustic blues stomp “Next Door Neighbor Blues.” Perhaps, Clark is using Blak And Blu, released the end of October, to illustrate how the blues are the foundation of all American music genres.

One of the strongest tracks on Blak And Blu is the nearly 10-minute long mash-up of “Third Stone from the Sun” and “If You Love Me Like You Say.” A favorite during his live shows, the jam was born from a technical problem during a performance in Austin, Texas years ago.

“I had this gig every Monday night on 5th Street,” Clark remembers. “I recall that someone in the band wasn’t ready. They were adjusting something or fixing something. I started exploring this trippy thing in E and started playing that riff. Then, the band came in. I don’t know what happened, but it clicked. We fell into a groove at the same time, and I started singing these lyrics of Albert Collins’ take on ‘If You Love Me Like You Say,’ which I heard first. I sang those lyrics over it then trailed back into ‘Third Stone.’ It’s something that stuck. We kept doing it. We had been doing it for a few years and people were asking me if it was recorded. I didn’t know why I hadn’t [recorded it].”

As for “Numb,” the song’s thick, sludgy guitar came out of Clark’s desire to investigate a new sound for the song that he first cut a decade ago. “I was experimenting with different effects, fuzz pedals – different tunings,” he says. “I had been doing this version of that song as traditional stomp box acoustic blues.”

During the recording of Blak And Blu, Clark became enamored with the possibilities that a fully equipped studio could afford him. “I got to play horns on the album,” he says enthusiastically. “I got to play congas. I got to experiment doing things vocally, which was fun. I had a great time letting it all go. I didn’t play by any rules.”

While recording Blak And Blu, Clark was busy playing major music festivals across the country this past summer, from Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza to the Newport Folk Festival and The Hangout. Even though the stages were packed with some of the world’s biggest music acts, Clark says that he kept his cool. “I got into the mindset of whatever we’ve been doing has gotten us as far as this stage we’re on now,” he says. “I try not to get too overwhelmed thinking about it.”

Even though he was onstage at virtually every big American fest, it was a lesser-known international concert that yielded what Clark calls the most memorable experience of the summer. “I got to play in one of my favorite places in the world: San Sebastian, Spain,” he says of the Heineken Jazz Festival, where an eclectic roster included Bobby McFerrin, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and Antony and The Johnsons. “It was cool to be invited to a jazz festival. It was this gig that was right on the beach, right on the water, with beautiful sweet people.”

Like all great live acts, Clark and his backing band let the feel of the show dictate some of their performance. “We have an outline,” he says. “We have an idea of what songs we are going to play and how long we are going to play – but what goes on within that, there’s no telling.”

The nimbleness of Clark’s three-piece backing band is aided by the fact that it’s filled with friends from Austin that he loves playing with. He’s known guitarist Eric Zapata since high school. Zapata’s own band frequently performs at Antone’s. “I showed him some stuff I was working on, and he’s like, ‘Yo, I think you need me in your band,’” Clark says of how Zapata joined. “I was like, ‘Alright dude.’ I hate to admit it, but he was right.”

Clark says that though he now has a full-length major debut of songs to draw from, he’ll continue throwing in covers such as Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up,” Lowell Fulson’s “3 O’clock Blues” and Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train” into his sets.

“I love to play cover songs, and I love to play the songs that had a major influence on me,” he says. “I haven’t thought out the songs that I’d like to cover. Basically, it’s a respect thing. Things don’t come from nothing, so it’s definitely important to show some love or show some respect when you can. Because I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I hadn’t been inspired by other certain artists.”

With the release of the potent and varied Blak And Blu, now there’s the chance that Clark’s own songs will be an inspiration to future musicians who discover his unique 21st century blues.