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Gary Clark Jr.: A Raucous Blues Shout

Oct 19, 2012
Originally published on October 19, 2012 10:49 pm

On his major-label debut Blak and Blu, you can hear the roar in Gary Clark Jr.'s blues guitar, and in his vocal throughout "Bright Lights." It's one of the few straight-up blues songs on what is essentially an introduction to one of the most highly praised young blues guitarists in recent times. While Clark comes out of a blues tradition, he's also a twentysomething who's taken in all of contemporary music.

"I don't believe in competition, ain't nobody else like me around," he sings in "Ain't Messin' Around." It's a boasting song, a chunk of neo-soul with a vehement horn section. Stylistically, Clark is all over the map. In "The Life," Clark speaks conversational verses, not rapping but not full-out singing, either, inviting some hip-hop rhythm and percussion into his music. And sometimes Clark breaks out with some Chuck Berry-ish rock 'n' roll, as in "Travis County."

The showpiece of Blak and Blu, Clark's calling card for dexterity as well as authenticity, is probably the nine-minutes-plus medley of Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun" combined with Little Johnny Taylor's "If You Love Me Like You Say," a combo that Clark can reportedly stretch out to 20 minutes in concert. I'd say he serves himself even better with the awe-inspiring blare of his own composition "Numb," as well as a concise blast of blues-rock called "Glitter Ain't Gold."

Blak and Blu has been produced by Mike Elizondo, who's worked with acts ranging from Dr. Dre to Fiona Apple, and a few other cuts overseen by Rob Cavallo, the man who brought you Green Day. They clearly think that in Gary Clark Jr., they've got the hottest young blues performer since Robert Cray. I'd say Clark is still a work in progress. His voice is a bit thin for the heavy blues and rock that he likes to tackle, which is why his vocals seem more heavily produced than his guitar playing. But his eclecticism isn't just showing off — he has a real feel for each genre he mixes and matches. Blak and Blu may be uneven, but it's also something rare: a blues album by a young artist that's less a sober attempt at worthiness than the raucous shout of a happy talent.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Gary Clark, Jr. is a 28-year-old guitarist from Austin, Texas who's established a reputation as an exciting performer who mixes blues, rock and soul music into his compositions. He's become well-known to a broad audience for his performances at music festivals, ranging from Lollapalooza to the Newport Folk Festival. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Clark's major label debut called "Blak and Blu."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT LIGHTS")

GARY CLARK, JR.: (Singing) Woke up in, woke up in New York City lying on the floor, just outside of Marcy's West 54. Wow. You gonna know my name...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: You can hear the roar in Gary Clark Jr.'s blues guitar and in his vocal on that song, "Bright Lights." It's one of the few straight-up blues on what is essentially the introduction to one of the most highly praised young blues guitarists in recent times, because while Clark comes out of a blues tradition, he's also a 20-something who's taken in all of contemporary music, as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T MESSIN' AROUND")

JR.: (Singing) I don't believe in competition. Ain't nobody else like me around. I don't need your inquisition. It ain't that hard to figure it out. Give it up, now. Play it cool. Get it up, now. Play it cool. All the rules that you use and abusing. No more rules, you can't take this confusion. Give it up now. Don't let me down.

TUCKER: I don't believe in competition. Ain't nobody else like me around, he sings on that song, "Ain't Messin' Around." It's a boasting song, a chunk of neo-soul with a vehement horn section. Stylistically, Clark is all over the map. On "The Life," Clark speaks conversational verses - not rapping, but not full-out singing, either, inviting some hip-hop rhythm and percussion into his music. And sometimes Clark breaks out with Chuck Berry-ish rock 'n' roll, as in "Travis County."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVIS COUNTY")

JR.: (Singing) Yeah. Travis County took my picture, but nope, I didn't smile. They told me I was going to be here for a pretty long while. One day I was walking down the street when I should've been walking down the hall, and I heard a voice calling out, saying, ooh, where you going, y'all?

TUCKER: The showpiece of this album - Clark's calling card for dexterity, as well as authenticity - is probably the nine-minutes-plus medley of Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun" combined with Little Johnny Taylor's "If You Love Me Like You Say," a combo that Clark can reportedly stretch out to 20 minutes in concert. I'd say he serves himself even better with the awe-inspiring blare of his own composition called "Numb" and this concise blast of blues-rock, "Glitter Ain't Gold."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLITTER AIN'T GOLD")

JR.: (Singing) They told me that I needed some patience, but don't keep me waiting too long. They told me that I needed salvation, but who are we to lean on? 'Cause something's going on, here. Something's going wrong. We're running out of time, here. But I'm still waiting for something. It doesn't matter...

TUCKER: "Blak and Blu" has been produced by Mike Elizondo, who's worked with acts ranging from Dr. Dre to Fiona Apple, and a few other cuts overseen by Warner Brothers Records chairman Rob Cavallo, the man who brought you Green Day. They clearly think that in Gary Clark, Jr., they've got the hottest young blues performer since Robert Cray. I'd say Clark is still a work in progress.

His voice is a bit thin for the heavy blues and rock that he likes to tackle, which is why his vocals seem more heavily produced than his guitar playing. But his eclecticism isn't just showing off. He has a real feel for each genre he mixes and matches. "Blak and Blu" may be uneven, but it's also something rare: a blues album by a young artist that's less a sober attempt at worthiness than the raucous shout of a happy talent.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Gary Clark, Jr.'s new album "Blak and Blu." You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.