Hailing from Austin, Texas, 28-year-old guitar prodigy Gary Clark, Jr. became a local legend by playing in Texas blues clubs and periodically releasing albums on his own label for the past decade or so. But over the last couple of years, he began to make a name for himself nationally by playing to very large, very receptive crowds at every festival imaginable, including a star-making set at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival in 2010 as well as a sweaty, muscular performance at this year’s Bonnaroo. Clark has been anointed by some as the savior of the blues. Which is ridiculous; the blues don’t need saving. But the genre might benefit from getting a little life breathed into them, exactly what Clark accomplishes on the handful of tracks on Blak & Blu in which he embraces the moniker the blues gods have bestowed upon him.
On tracks like the transcendent centerpiece “Numb,” the record succeeds in showcasing Clark’s unique ability to turn a simple blues riff into a heavy, slinking groove that does its titular job of blissfully numbing the listener. “Bright Lights,” “When My Train Pulls In,” and “Things Are Changin’” were all present on Clark’s 2011 EP, Bright Lights, and all are welcome here, though the latter lacks some of the energy and immediacy of the EP version, which is live and acoustic. I guess the moral there is that none of his recorded output (although excellent) will ever live up to the dizzying heights he’s capable of reaching in a live setting, the reason his festival performances have been so resonant with concertgoers.
The last song on the album, “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” sounds like it was recorded by Alan Lomax somewhere in the Mississippi Delta during the 1930s. I’m sure there are a legion of blues fans who wish Clark would just record an album full of cuts like this throwback gem. But Gary Clark Jr.’s more ambitious than that. He’s a musician talented enough to rest on his superior guitar-playing, but not content to do so.
On the other half of the album? Well, the results are a little more mixed. “Blak and Blu” is steeped in bland ‘90s R&B and hip-hop production, conspicuously lacking his trademark guitar wailing while featuring the sound of a baby crying (seriously, Gary, what the hell was that?). But Clark makes up for this misstep a few tracks later with “The Life,” a much more successful stab at contemporary hip-hop and R&B that wisely doesn’t throw out his guitar skills and is the song that most consistently gets stuck in my head. “The Life” might also prove revelatory as Clark sings, “So hard for me to pass up the crown / When it’s been passed down / I’m sitting on the throne and / Sometimes I feel in this world I’ve just been thrown in.” He didn’t choose to be the savior of the blues and it might not be the title that he wants, but it’s the title he’s been given and that’s a damn hard thing to pass up. It seems that Clark’s response to this dilemma is to not entirely abandon the blues but instead to use them as an entry point for him to explore other styles of music that interest him.
For example, “Ain’t Messin ‘Round” opens the album up with a blast of Stax-style horns and a guitar lick that could have been delivered by Steve Cropper himself, but the solo Clark breaks out is pure electric Texas blues. The same goes for “Please Come Home,” which sounds like something from the soundtrack to A Bronx Tale, complete with doo wop falsetto crooning, until you get to Clark’s blistering solo midway through. It’s like there’s a glass case in the studio with a button that reads, “In case of emergency, break glass for gut-busting guitar solo,” and Clark presses it every time he veers into unfamiliar musical territory.
For the most part, Gary Clark, Jr. is able to straddle the different musical styles he’s testing out, all while remaining capable of unleashing a distortion-heavy screamer of a guitar lick whenever the situation calls for it. He may not have asked to be the new king of the blues, but until a worthy challenger emerges, the throne is his to sit upon and his alone. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.