Just as Twin Cities music lovers have waited several years to finally get a local date with him, trying to get Gary Clark Jr. on the phone became something of a waiting game.
The Austin, Texas, guitar slinger put off one interview last month to rest up for an overseas flight, then two more last weekend to prepare for a New York tribute to blues great Jimmy Reed with Rolling Stones guitarists Ronnie Wood and Mick Taylor. Oh, those guys.
He joined all of the Stones on stage in Boston in May, which became the backdrop to a Rolling Stone magazine profile on Clark. You know, the one with the oft-repeated headline “The Chosen One.”
Considering that the acclaimed blues-rocker also recently played in front of a visibly impressed President Obama and Jay Z — and, not to mention, he has a visibly impressive Victoria’s Secret model girlfriend nowadays — it was hard to take umbrage with the interview delays.
Finally making his local debut Wednesday at First Avenue, a show that sold out months ago, the 29-year-old son of a car salesman is a bona fide rock star now. You wouldn’t have known it once he finally called, though, coming off as laid-back cool as the city that birthed him. In fact, he seemed more eager to talk about Old Austin than all of his impressive new adventures.
The ‘Texas Flood’ effect
“It took me leaving to realize where I came from is a special place,” said Clark, who now resides in New York. “I think it gives me a little extra swagger having grown up there, and having it in my blood.”
It’s relevant to distinguish Clark as a native Austinite vs. a musician who just moved there after attending the South by Southwest Music Conference one year. Blues music was a huge part of the local music fabric in the 1980s and ’90s. Even local punk and metalhead kids could be seen hanging out at the fabled Antone’s blues club, and the omnipresence of Stevie Ray Vaughan there was akin to Prince in Minneapolis.
Clark is hardly just a blues player. As was shown by last year’s mixed-bag debut for Warner Bros., “Blak & Blu,” he’s a rocker all the way, with ample soul and R&B influences, too. The blues is just always there in his music, a part of the fabric just as it was in Austin.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing musically when I started,” admitted Clark, who cut his teeth in less-than-cool 6th Street Austin hangs such as Babe’s and Joe’s Generic Bar at age 13.
“I was trying to rap. I was doing R&B stuff. I was doing a little bit of everything, but then a friend tipped me off to these free blues jams in town, where I could get up and play and it didn’t matter I was a kid. And that’s when I really got into it.”
Eventually, he fell in with Clifford Antone, the late Austin blues kingpin, who brought a teenage Clark out on stage with Muddy Waters sidemen Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins one night for his christening. “Clifford was always telling me about those guys in a way where I didn’t just fall in love with the music, but with their stories and the whole romance of the blues.”
His influences go back to Vaughan’s own heroes, including Jimmy Reed, Albert King, Albert Collins and especially T-Bone Walker. Oh yeah, and Jimi Hendrix, to whom Clark is all too easily and often compared. But Vaughan was the guy whose statue Clark would walk past on a daily basis.
“I got this VHS tape around 1996 that had his two ‘Austin City Limits’ episodes on it, and was just blown away, captivated,” Clark recalled. “From then on out, I watched and studied that tape a thousand times. And from there, I learned the ‘Texas Flood’ album, and so on.”
Ironically, he said it’s all because of Stevie that he plays a hollow-body Epiphone guitar and not the more standard Fender Stratocaster, like SRV played: “Anytime I strap on a Strat, I want to become Stevie. It’s just too obvious, and too irresistible.”
Up to the Crossroads
It was Stevie’s older brother, Jimmie Vaughan, who brought Clark to the attention of Eric Clapton in 2010. Clapton then invited Clark to play his Crossroads festival in Chicago that year as an unknown, and the rest is history. Even if that history isn’t quite accurate.
“You either get it or you don’t, and even as a 13-year-old Gary got it,” Jimmie Vaughan told Austin music writer Michael Corcoran. “He understands that a solo has a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Clark admitted with a laugh in our interview, however: “Sometimes I have a little trouble getting to the end. I try to play more restrained, like Jimmie does so well, but sometimes I just can’t wrap it up.”
Similarly, he debunked the myth that his performance at the 2010 Crossroads festival was his crowning moment — not disputing it as his career breakthrough, but rather arguing that it didn’t deserve to be.
“I actually thought it would go down as my worst, most disastrous show,” he said, explaining that the sound cut out midway through “Bright Lights,” the song with the prophetic “You’re gonna know my name” lyric.
“You can’t tell when you watch the DVD, but people were yelling and booing. I got near the end of my solo, and the sound finally came back on, and that’s why people all of a sudden start cheering — not because of me.”
Anyone who has seen Clark perform knows he’s one of the most electrifying performers on tour today.
While he’s proud of “Blak & Blu,” Clark concurred that Twin Cities fans probably can’t say they know him until they see him live. They’ll have another chance March 6 at Target Center when he returns on tour with Kings of Leon.
“It’s kind of hard to capture what all we do in the studio,” he said. “There’s that spontaneity and energy at a live show that you can’t replicate. It sort of takes the band to another level, and it gets me there, too.”
Finally, we can get there with them.