Amongst the list of blues musicians in our generation today, Gary Clark Jr. has secured his place somewhere close to the top. Having been tipped as the next big thing in the blues rock scene, the Grammy-winning guitarist has certainly established himself well in the past few years. Well, that’s what most of us would expect of an artist who has shared stages with the heavyweights such as Jimmy Vaughan, Buddy Guy, and even The Rolling Stones.
Coming at us with his first live album since his groundbreaking performance in 2010 at Eric Clapton’s esteemed Crossroads Festival, Gary Clark Jr. Live is a crystallization of the guitar virtuoso’s status as the pioneer of mainstream blues rock in a generation where many have expressed their discontent at its steady decline. Just look up any video on YouTube with Jimi Hendrix in it, and you’re bound to find one of the top comments going along the lines of “I wish people still listened to music like this instead of all that pop trash on the radio”. I say – to each his own (and I can testify to a whole bunch of decent pop music out there), but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. We’re here to talk about those screeching guitar solos, exhilarating choruses, and emphatic vocals radiating from the two-disc collection recorded over eighteen months of touring that is bound to satisfy those lamenters on YouTube. It’s almost like Gary Clark Jr. was sent here just for that purpose.
The album opens splendidly and in the most genre-appropriate way with a rendition of the iconic “Catfish Blues”, covered by many other illustrious guitarists through the years. Beginning with fuzz-infused guitar licks to tease the crowd, the band breaks out into a mid-tempo blues jam as they support the axe-wielding maestro in the spotlight. It almost serves the perfect statement of intent as he lays those soulful vocals and Hendrix-like guitar chops out on display.
Moving on to one of his more popular hits “Bright Lights” which gained critical acclaim during the release of The Bright Lights EP in 2011, Clark demonstrates a level of understanding of the genre only seen with the veterans as he breaks out into an emphatic solo that demands both your attention and admiration, even if blues rock has never been your cup of tea. There’s no denying of the musicality exhibited through his powerful phrasing as he knocks those notes out with ease. “Don’t Owe You A Thang” is another symbol of this as he pulls the crowd on his very own freight train with an electrifying number, packed with fast-paced twists and turns.
As if he had to acquaint us any further with his grasp of the instrument, we hear a slew of tracks where he ventures out into his brand of slow blues. Taking on Lowell Fuslon’s “Three O’Clock Blues”, his band takes the backseat with a light swing rhythm and walking bass line, allowing Clark’s chops to truly breathe and manifest in the musical space created, reminiscent of the great B.B. King. Stripping it down to just a guitar and vocals on the album closer “When The Sun Comes Down”, we hear a passionate yet soothing refrain by the singer before the harmonica kicks in with a thick bluesy overlay.
Perhaps the most notable element of the fifteen-track collection is the diverse range of styles that Clark takes on, while maintaining the signature touch in his songs. Some have labeled Clark as the “savior of blues rock”, but what has truly allowed the maestro to stand out from the pool of budding blues artists is his ability to incorporate various sounds into his work that are outside of that primary genre, rather than looking to be the next Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix. We hear strong reggae influences on “When My Train Pulls In” that were never apparent in its studio counterpart, while the soulful “Please Come Home” edges close to an Etta James tribute as it places his falsetto in the spotlight.
Hearing the live versions of tracks such as “Third Stone From The Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say” highlights the creativity and innovation emanating from the musician as his funk capabilities are brought to the forefront. Formerly recognized as a smooth R&B track in his 2012 release Blak and Blu, “Things are Changin’ ” is given a facelift with a more aggressive approach with Clark ripping out relentless solos over the original groove. When it comes to the rock n’ roll numbers “Travis County” and “Ain’t Messin ’Round”, the recordings here are almost like throwbacks to great acts such as The Rolling Stones and even Cream, who first encapsulated that level of energy in their live performances.
With Gary Clark Jr. Live, we have a massive milestone from the singer in the form of an impressive amassment of styles, reminding us yet again of his skills and talent. This isn’t just another cut-and-paste artist whipping out fast blues licks on the guitar, but an artist with genuine musicality and appeal – enough to keep things fresh and interesting for any listener. While Gary Clark Jr. may still be young in his years of guitar-playing in comparison to other modern blues players such as Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa, he encapsulates the full package here as each track screams with raw passion and ferocity. He’s only going to get better from here, and I can’t even imagine what that’ll be like.