The first time Gary Clark Jr. played in Memphis he was only 17 years old. Clark was representing his hometown of Austin, Texas, at the 2000 — or maybe 2001, he's not sure — International Blues Challenge on Beale Street. Clark didn't win that annual amateur battle of the bands, sponsored by the Blues Foundation, but he was okay with that.
"I was just excited to be there," Clark says by phone from Austin. "It wasn't about the competition. I was still in high school."
A decade later, a 27-year-old Clark will return to the "Home of the Blues" for the first time since his IBC baptism as the latest hope for pulling the blues back into the mainstream pop world.
"When was the last time a young blues guitarist really blew your mind?" critic Will Hermes wrote in a recent issue of Rolling Stone. Hermes' rave may go a little far, name-checking Kurt Cobain and Miles Davis alongside blues-guitar hotshot icons such as Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix. But such is Clark's musical range and commercial potential that the idea of looking outside the blues/blues-rock world even comes up.
It's been a long time since a young blues player seemed to have this kind of potential. A decade ago, Corey Harris and Memphis' Alvin Youngblood Hart boasted as much talent, but their personalities and interests were too esoteric to command as much mainstream interest. White guitar specialists Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd had crossover potential but fit safely within a certain blues-rock archetype and never excited critics or aesthetes. Clark is the first young blues artist with the chance to unite art and commerce in a major way since, I dunno, Robert Cray?
This potential isn't just about music. After honing his chops on the Austin scene for a decade, with a couple of low-profile indie albums and some acting work (including a starring role in John Sayles' blues-themed Honeydripper), Clark's new launch is happening on a major-label platform, something increasingly rare for a genre that's become more of a self-contained niche scene in recent decades.
Clark's recent rise started last summer in Chicago.
"I was invited to Eric Clapton's Crossroads Blues Festival last year, and some of the guys from Warner were hanging around, I guess," Clark says, not mentioning that his festival performance was a massive head-turner according to all accounts. It led to his signing with Warner Bros., which will not only release a full-length album next spring but has taken the unusual step of putting out a four-song calling card, The Bright Lights EP, well ahead of the album.
The Bright Lights EP is an impressive showcase of Clark's range and command. The title track, on which Clark asserts, "You gonna know my name by the end of the night," is a slow-burn blues-rock testament. "Don't Owe You a Thang" is a sharp, quick-footed blast of juke-joint boogie. These electric cuts are followed by a couple of equally compelling solo/acoustic tracks: "Things Are Changin'" is an intimate, finger-picked soul ballad. The epic "When My Train Pulls In" is country blues with jazz shadings.
Clark says the forthcoming album, which he's still working on, will lean more toward the band (of Gypsies) style of the electric cuts on the EP. "Blues, rock-and-roll, and soul music, that's what I'm going for," he says.
Though he found out well after beginning his music career that's he's distantly related to blues-scene stalwart W.C. Clark, Gary Clark Jr. is not the scion of a blues family, as is so often the case now with young black blues players at a time when musically inclined young African Americans are more likely to gravitate to hip-hop or R&B.
"My family is very musical, singing in church, the gospel thing. There are some music teachers in there," Clark says. "But I got into guitar from just listening to records and seeing bands play on TV. I thought it was pretty cool. My dad had B.B. King records, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson records. I was a fan of the Jackson Five and liked seeing Tito play his guitar. When I got a little bit older, I heard Jimi Hendrix from a friend and I got hooked on that. And being in Austin, I was inspired by Jimmie Vaughan and Stevie Ray Vaughan."
At the same time, Clark was also listening to the same contemporary pop music as his friends, citing Nirvana, Tupac, and Notorious B.I.G. And now he's making music that's rooted strongly in blues tradition but still has an utterly contemporary feel.
"I would like to branch out a bit, but that just comes from being inspired by a lot of things. The blues is definitely my foundation," Clark says when asked about taking his sound into the wider pop world. "If there's an opportunity to do that, I'm up for it."
Gary Clark Jr.
Friday, October 7th
7:30 p.m.; free