I first heard of Gary Clark Jr. when he released his second EP Bright Lights back in the summer of 2011. It caught my ears and I immediately picked it up and shoved it onto my iPod as quickly as possible. He was a musical force to be reckoned with and it wasn’t difficult to recognize that. Since then, Gary Clark Jr. has done exactly what you would expect a blues wunderkind to do – tour festivals extensively and play with some of the greatest blues performers ever. Not a bad idea at all.
Gary Clark Jr. fits into a small grouping of modern-day blues guitar prodigies. Let’s add Derek Trucks, Doyle Bramhall II, Joe Bonamassa to this list as well. If we wanted to forget about age barriers let’s add Warren Haynes to that, for, while he is not young (well, I mean, neither is Bramhall), he still tirelessly performs today (and he is incredible and he was a prodigy). Interestingly, Gary Clark Jr. reminds me a little of Warren Haynes. Why? Well, the man is a triple threat. He can play rhythm and lead, sing wonderfully, and knows how to take a backseat to other performers on stage (an important trait to possess).
But do you know who Gary Clark Jr. reminds me of the most? His guitar tone is saturated with rich distortion and hooky riffs and rhythms much in the manner of Jimi Hendrix, another guitar prodigy, who just understood how to make the guitar sing. Now, please, in no way am I saying that he is equitable to one of the greatest guitar players to ever pick up the instrument. I am just saying that his style reminds me of Hendrix. And, actually, if Hendrix stayed alive, I think he would have moved into a realm that Gary Clark Jr. is beginning to explore – sticky, humid blues with creative distortion and grunty vocals.
“Bright Lights,” the song that represents this exploration, was featured by the NFL for the 2012 draft. It was a good choice because the song does talk of “Bright Lights” and since the draft was at Radio City Music Hall in NYC the selection was intelligent. It also reminded me of Gary Clark Jr. and I went on a bit of a listening binge – mostly live performances though because he just doesn’t have enough songs yet.
The next few years are going to be crucial. “Bright Lights” seems to suggest that Gary Clark Jr. may be able to do something that not many have been able to accomplish in the last 40 years, bring blues music into the tempting arms of popular pop music while maintaining the gritty roots of the song. “Bright Lights” does this perfectly. Check out this performance of the song from the Crossroads Festival in 2010. By the way, that is Bramhall II in the yellow shirt providing some extra lead depth.
The song is, as Steven Tyler would say, “crazy good.” The hard-hitting rhythm, heavy on the downbeat, mixes with Gary Clark Jr.’s soulful vocal that, if it wasn’t for his guitar skill, would be his strongest attribute. The song levels out for a while with this pounding riff and the bluesy vocals, but, it doesn’t last that way for long. The guitar of Gary Clark Jr. cannot be contained for long. His lead work is insane! The skill he expresses in his ability to command the guitar like it his voice and not his instrument is extraordinary. It is extraordinary in every sense of that word. Not many guitarists can even smell that talent. The tone is scary. When I first heard this song I dropped everything I was doing and stared, just stared. Check out the echo of his guitar around 3:30 – 4:00 into the song. Like, seriously! You actually feel the guitar may explode, he is so proficient.
Can he do traditional electric blues?
Check. Did you think he would have any problems with this? The wa-wa solo around 1:45 is a thing of beauty. It is eccentric, even alien, but that is what he can do. He takes what you expect from blues and manipulates it with his quick playing and distortion effects.
He is super talented and well-known right now. Wait a year or two and a widely-released LP and he will be known across America like Derek Trucks.