Gary Clark, Jr. is an artist that I have been aware for over a year. I remember seeing an ad for him on Facebook saying something to the effect of, “Fan of The Black Keys? Check out Gary Clark, Jr.” I did check him out, and while not totally overwhelmed by what I took in, I was intrigued. Over the next several months, I began to see his name pop up as a minor headliner at major festivals, including Mountain Jam and Bonnaroo. Then there was an email from Daytrotter promoting his session on their site. I downloaded it, and was really impressed. From there I decided to buy his EP, The Bright Lights, which converted me to a true fan of his.
The EP’s title track, “Bright Lights,” was stuck in my head for days, but it was the two live, solo acoustic tracks that really caught my attention. His guitar playing was not only impressive, but also incredibly rhythmic. Add in his soulful, slightly gravely voice, and I realized I was listening to a bon-a-fide, modern day bluesman. So it should be no surprise that his debut album, Blak and Blu, was one that I was anticipating for several months, and for all intents and purposes this album lived up to my expectations.
Based purely on the limited material I knew, I was anticipating that Blak and Blu would be a down and dirty blues-rock album, filled with lots of guitar work and soulful singing. What I heard was a mix of blues, rock, and modern soul/R&B. At times Clark sounds like Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys), other times like Lenny Kravitz, and other times like a generic modern R&B artist. For some people this may show a inconsistency in Clark’s music, but I interpret this differently. Instead of being inconsistent, I see this as Clark trying to find his niche in the music world, as well as understanding that in order to find the widest audience possible, he must try to hit the musical interests of a wide swath of potential fans. Or he could just be paying tribute to his influences.
Unlike many debut albums, Blak and Blu is quite long, having 13 tracks and clocking in at 66 minutes. It’s a lot of music to take in, and as mentioned above, it’s quite sprawling genre-wise. Overall, the album is very good, with a handful of pretty fantastic songs. The album’s first track, “Ain’t Messin ‘Round,” is one of these. Opening with a single snare hit followed by an intense blast of horns, the song is a pretty standard sounding blues-rocker. Though nothing in the song is mind-blowing, the song is just a pure barnburner, with intensity that does not relent, even during the post-solo breakdown. This is one of those songs that should be played LOUD while you just simply let yourself have fun.
The track that follows, “When My Train Pulls In,” is a full band version of one of the solo acoustic tracks from The Bright Lights EP. Where the EP version was more somber and emotional, the album version is full of energy, though still packing that emotional punch. The guitar work on the album version is very Hendrix-esque, filled with tons of distortion and wah-wah. Ironically, the solo on the EP version has Clark playing a bit of “Third Stone From The Sun” by Jimi Hendrix, a track that he actually covers later on the album (though it is combined with one of his own tracks).
“Bright Lights,” the fourth track, is easily my favorite on the album. Essentially a remixed and remastered version of the one found on his EP, the song is just one of those big, fat, juicy blues songs that anyone with any love of music can’t resist. The beat is locked in the pocket, and the bassline consists of thick, heavy quarter and eighth notes, that give the song a solid foundation. The guitar work is, once again, stellar, something that is consistent throughout the album. However, it is the lyrical hooks that grab me in this song. Though there is really nothing special about them, the combination of simple, repeated phrases and the aforementioned phat beat cause the refrains to be stuck in my head for days.
The seventh track, “Glitter Ain’t Gold,” is another heavy, bluesy rocker, which sounds eerily like it came from a Lenny Kravitz album. From the riff to Clark’s voice it’s pure Kravitz. Yet, this doesn’t take away from the fact that this song kicks some pretty serious ass. The powerhouse combination of heavy fuzz guitar and bass playing the same ostinato riff make this song. It’s just one of those lines that makes you want to turn the volume up high and head bang.
“Next Door Neighbor Blues” closes the album, but may be the best example of what Gary Clark, Jr., truly is: a bluesman. Recorded to sound like a lo-fi field recording, the song exhibits Clark’s ability to play and knowledge of traditional blues. To me, this is the core of his music, and the fact that he is displaying it on his debut record is impressive, because he’s already shown his ability to play more modern and popular styles of music, but leaves the listener with a raw, crude-sounding traditional blues. And this isn’t just some silly knock-off, it’s a good song, and shows that Clark’s musical roots come from the blues.
While these songs are the highlights (in my mind) of the album, there are a bunch of other really good songs. “Travis County” is a barnburner that seems to come straight out of Clark’s hometown of Austin, TX. “The Life” is the most modern R&B influenced song, and I could easily see this as being a radio hit. “Please Come Home” is a 60s soul influenced song, and would easily fit in with what Raphael Saadiq has been doing recently. “Third Stone From The Sun/You Love Me Like You Say” combines the Hendrix classic and a cover of the Little Johnny Taylor tune into a jam-heavy mini-medley that contains the one of the best guitar solos on the album. And then there’s “You Saved Me,” which, in my mind, is Clark’s attempt at writing his own “Purple Rain.” Though it doesn’t sound like the Prince classic, it does remind me of it, and Prince in general, which is not a bad thing at all.
So in the end, what may seem like an album that has no musical focus, should really be viewed as an album that is showcasing the ability of a rising star in the music world. The fact of the matter is Gary Clark, Jr. has talent, lots of it, and it can definitely be heard on this record. The one qualm I have with this record is that it does not have “Don’t Owe You A Thang,” which appeared on The Bright Lights EP. The song is a heavy, blues shuffle that is just simply electric, and one that I could see being the highlight of a live show.
Which leads me to my final thought. While Blak and Blu is a really enjoyable album that showcases his ability, Gary Clark, Jr. is someone you need to see live. Now I will admit that I have yet to see him in concert, but I have seen some of his live performances online (both streaming and recorded video) and they were phenomenal. The energy that emits from his album comes out in his live performances, but at an exponentially higher level.
He may not be a once-in-a-generation artist, like some have titled him, but Gary Clark, Jr. is a talent, and one that you should take a listen to.