Morning Becomes the Blues: WFUV Beams Gary Clark, Jr. Back Home on SXSW Live RadioCast
Gary Clark, Jr. cuts a quiet figure, long limbs settled into a chair on a stage in a conference room in a convention center. It’s not even noon in the industrial bland room with some bean bags on the floor for the exhausted to drape on, but the folks from WFUV are doing their best to broadcast music that matters live-from-the-wilds-of-SXSW back to New York City, and the black man in the floppy, slightly over-sized fedora is happy to share his music when most other bluesmen would be asleep.
Clark, Jr. is an interesting proposition. He works in classic blues idioms, but teases light into the framings, tension without needing intensity to deliver it and emotions that run deceptively deep without reading extreme. He understands the power of major and minor keys, where to strum on the body of his guitar to offer nuance in ways most never bother with.
By the time he reached his mini-set closing “Bright Lights,” the title track of his fall 2011 EP, he’d worked through lyrical blues runs, savory exercises in strumming and the sort of soloing that’s restrained, yet has the expressive realm most flashier players fail to achieve.
Drawing on a Curtis Mayfield/Isaac Hayes-evocation for “When My Train Rolls In,” which paints a catalogue of the harshness of towns on the fail, desperate people scamming to get by and no reason to hope, Clark’s ability to communicate beyond the sheer lyrical details and flows from his fingers. Without ever rushing or using force, the choppy chords accelerate into an almost Neil Young & Crazy Horse-type frenzy. It is the terror made manifest rather than spoken – and the juxtaposition to the softness of his vocal is pronounced.
That vocal timbre – akin to James Taylor’s warmest places, or Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler” hush – is deceptive. Indeed, there’s a quality of melting the words when he sings, lines draping across the guitar parts with a solidity that doesn’t need to reach out.
Emphatic is within reach, however. “Bright Lights” juxtaposes his vocal tone with a chop-chop chorus of slashed chords and a sawing rhythm “bright lights, big city…” repeated until he confesses “And I don’t care… cause you don’t care…”
It feels like one more rejected lover, numbed by the blinking flash of the downtown neon: a thwarted man tumbling into the numb abyss of his heartache. It isn’t until closer listen you realize “Started out with a bottle, ended up with a gun…” emerges, offering a view of how a man who loses all hope can descends into a rage that eradicates reason. This isn’t a lovesick fool who’s paralyzed, but a poor man fighting back the only way he can.
As the recognition of what’s really hitting strikes you, Clark returns to a Chuck Berry-feeling solo, all single notes and circular melody. It eases the tension a bit, let’s the listener settle back into the action.
He sings another verse, continues spinning the moment. Then you strikes you: he’s returned to the pattern of rapid strumming, he’s again heading to the fault line. It is thrilling to witness, amazing for the quietness with which he delivers.
Equally stunning is his how an extended section of strumming his cherry red, hollow-bodied electric can yield a truth that is so much larger than any string of details. You can feel it, feel the protagonist’s sense of being .
But rather than crescendo, to release the obvious at the height of the musical brink, Clark pulls up, diminishing the tempo just a bit, and allows his voice to return. Not quite a moan, nor a declaration, it comes as a bluesy entreaty as much weakness as truncation:
“You gonna know my name…,” he intones.
“You gonna know my name…”
Over and over in an endless tumble. Until his fingers fall still and the final words fall “…Before the night is done.”
It is a small moment, yet it speaks like thunder. The morning audience, still half-hung-over and sleep-deprived, erupts. It is the kind of confession that doesn’t flex, doesn’t need to.
Already having shared stages with Alicia Keys, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, BB King, Austin’s own Gary Clark, Jr. has been turning heads since his early teens. A protégé of the late Clifford Antone, whose legendary club was ground zero for the blues and rock scenes that gave the world Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Will Sexton and various savory roots artists, he saw his hometown declare Gary Clark, Jr Day when he was just 17.
For all the acclaim, he could have flown straight into the lights. Louder, faster, harder, more. And he can. Absolutely. There is no doubt, of that. But somehow to conjure such intimacy and nuance with his weapon gives him a broader template than the flange’n’flex guitar stars so prevalent today.
It is art and it is grace, but especially it is a way to ensure blues’ soul remains. Remains fresh, true and filled with a currency that will give it a future as something more than a merely a well-preserved historic art form.