In 2010 Gary Clark Jr. appeared, as if from nowhere, at Eric Clapton’s 2010 Crossroads festival and proceeded to steal the show with an incendiary performance. It wasn’t long before the then 26-year-old singer-guitarist was hailed as “The Saviour of the Blues” and being compared to the likes of BB King and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
The comparisons were inevitable – Clark certainly knows his way around a fretboard – but the self-taught musician from Austin, Texas grew up listening to as much Nirvana as Jimmie Reed. During the first meeting with his manager, he outlined his ambitions as “Snoop Dogg meets John Lee Hooker”. And, instead of Jimi Hendrix, he’ll frequently namecheck the genre-fluid musician-turned-producer Quincy Jones as his biggest influence.
So over the course of three albums – 2012’s Blak And Blue, 2015’s The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim, and especially this year’s This Land – he’s been fusing vintage blues licks with hip-hop, ‘60s soul and R&B, funk, and reggae, drawing as much inspiration from Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield as Buddy Guy.
And even though, Lenny Kravitz-style, he plays most of the instruments on his studio recordings, on stage Clark is first and foremost a (fine) singer and (exceptional) guitarist. He knows it too, performing with the understated self-assurance of someone who’s been up on stages since the age of 14. There’s no needless showing off, just the perfect number of notes played with the perfect amount of passion to convey the deep emotions running through every song.
As his 6-foot-5 frame wrings everything out of those six strings during tonight’s seemingly effortless Roundhouse performance, Clark remains the epitome of cool. Even during the ferocious solo of politically charged recent single This Land, with the sweat generated by two straight hours of playing and the 1700 tightly-packed bodies in the Camden venue on this June night pouring off him, he’s as cool as ice.
Teeming with anger and defiance, the rap-tinged takedown of bigots emboldened by the Trump administration is but one of the new songs that dominate the massive 19-song set. The musician is rightly proud of his latest album and, with the help of a four-piece band every bit as talented as him, airs most of it tonight.
Instead of switching guitars for a freshly tuned instrument every song or two as many a rock star will do, Clark holds firm to his Wide Sky P125 – handmade by Patch Rubin in Taos New Mexico – for the duration of the night, changing up only three times to his trusty Gibson Flying-V and SG towards the end of the mammoth 140-minute set.
The highlights are many. There’s the slow jam What About Us, that has Clark singing with soul and laying down the chunky riff while King Zapata fills the gaps with slide guitar screams. There’s the gently grooving Feed The Babies, about his two children, that relies heavily on Johnny Bradley’s loping bass line, Jon Deas’ woozy organ fills and jazzy piano solo, and Clark’s ability to channel Curtis Mayfield’s smooth vocals.
There’s The Guitar Man, a gentle, gospel-flavoured ballad about life on the road, that opens his three-song encore, and is the epitome of restraint as Clark measuredly picks out the solo’s notes on his SG. And, most impressively, there’s Pearl Cadillac, about his mother’s sacrifices, that’s Motown by way of Paisley Park. Clark’s ragged riffs and steaming eyes-closed solos cut straight through Deas’ dreamy keys and his own Marvin Gaye-style falsetto, like Prince at his peak (who himself slayed the Roundhouse stage during his last ever London performance).
The endurance test of a Monday night in Camden is closed out with Clark’s famous, rousing, hard-rock rendition of The Beatles’ classic 1969 single Come Together, the 35-year-old handing over vocal duties on the choruses to the screaming audience, with little encouragement needed for us to belt those iconic lines from the tops of our lungs.
Tonight we are in awe. Of The Guitar Man. Of the rock star, the blues man, the soul singer. The many labels that try to be applied but instead piece together firmly and uniquely to form a patchwork style, a blending of genres all underpinned by seemingly effortless guitar-playing. Despite downplaying the mantle, Gary Clark Jr. may very well be the Saviour of the Blues. He’s just doing it in his own way.
Photos of Gary Clark Jr. at The Roundhouse on 17th June 2019 by Kalpesh Patel.