Having seen Gary Clark Jr. perform a couple times before in his native Austin, I thought it my duty going into his Twin Cities debut Wednesday night to emphasize he’s more than just a blues artist. I even did so in the profile piece that ran ahead of the long-sold-out show. As if calling him JABA would be selling him short, or wouldn't get him with the proper awesomeness quotient with hipsters who've been hearing him on the Current and/or who normally flock to First Ave.
Screw that. Wednesday's concert was one of the most deeply felt, goosebump-inducing concerts at First Ave all year -- in large part because Clark turned it into such a monstrous tear through deep blues territory. Three-fourths of the 110-minute performance was made up of bluesy jams, and 100 percent of those moments were electrifying.
The show started with two of the more straight-ahead, modernized rockers that have earned Clark his local airplay, “Ain’t Messin’ Around” and the arresting “Travis County.” Both were slowed down and played with more of a simmering, raw power than on record, which helped set up the crowd for the first blues workout of the night: a slinky and damn elegant spin through B.B. King’s “Three O’Clock Blues.” As he soloed without a pick on his Epiphone hollow-body, Clark showed he’s as soulful a guitar player as he is mighty.
The mightiest moment came just a few songs later. “When My Train Pulls In,” one of the bluesiest and muddiest songs off Clark’s “Blak & Blu” album, truly played out like a train ride in concert, picking up steam as it rolled along and carrying with it a weight that rattled your bones. The Jimi Hendrix/Albert Collins mash-up (“Third Stone from the Sun” with “Love Me Like You Say”) had a similar, hold-onto-your-hat effect nearer the end of the set.
In between those fuzzed-out, blistering highlights and the slower gems were two more delightfully gritty and classic blues covers, Collins’ “If Trouble Was Money” and Albert King’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Although Clark’s rhythm section wouldn’t win any awards for its rather lifeless backing, he himself proved why he deserves presidential recognition for keeping the music alive.
Clark didn’t fare so well as a John Legend-like R&B singer. Both of the tender tunes “Things Are Changing” and “You Saved Me” weakly limped along – the latter instance particularly an apparent lull since it came in the encore. He did show off a sweet falsetto side in “Please Come Home,” though, and the stripped-down version of “Blak & Blu” was another nice variation from the record.
In the end, though, the biggest difference from seeing Clark live and hearing him on record was the heavier inundation of blues tunes. He truly is a rock star on that front. Here's the set list from Wednesday:
Ain’t Messin’ Around / Travis County / Three O’Clock Blues [B.B. King cover] / ?? / Don’t Owe You a Thing / When My Train Pulls In / Please Come Home / Things Are Changing / Oh, Pretty Woman (Can’t Make You Love Me) [Albert King] / If Trouble Was Money [Albert Collins] / Third Stone from the Sun & If You Love Me Like You Say [Jimi Hendrix & Albert Collins mash-up] / Blak & Blu / Bright Lights ENCORE: In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down) [Leroy Carr] / You Save Me / Numb
Clark was way more subdued but nonetheless impressive in a half-hour session he taped earlier in the day Wednesday at Minnesota Public Radio's UBS Forum, which will air during the morning show next Wednesday on 89.3 the Current.