Note: I originally wrote this review to be published in The East Texan on October 2, 2014. It won third place in the Division III Critical Review competition at the 2015 Texas Intercollegiate Press Association Convention.
Gary Clark Jr. doesn’t like playing live. He’s too shy, he says, to really interact with the audience when he’s onstage, so he just talks to them with his guitar.
With his long-awaited live release, Jr.’s message has been received. Channeling though his small, relatively young body, his 15-song set proves that even if Rock and Roll is dead, The Blues lives on in the soul of a Texas man who may just be too good for his own well-being.
Rarely has a single live Blues set managed to make every single song not only bring something new to the table, but stand alone on its own as an individual recording that can set itself apart from whatever came before it. Gary Clark Jr. makes it look easy. Grounded in his roots, Jr. somehow manages to channel the legends from the early era of the genre, from Muddy Waters to B.B. King, and still sound like a modern guitarist that can be successful in 2014. Hell, in a matter of minutes, he can change everything you ever thought a modern guitarist should be. And he makes it look easy.
If Robert Johnson had to sell his soul to the devil in order to be as good as he was, I’d hate to know what Jr. had to do to gain his skill. Playing with the emotional depth of someone twice his age, every note Clark plucks from his guitar sounds as though it was ripped straight from his own heartstrings. You can almost literally feel his pain through his playing when he lights up the old Blues standard “Three O’Clock Blues” for a new generation, while his refreshing live take on “Numb” assaults the eardrums like a guitar fuzz-induced bass drop.
When debating who should be known as the greatest guitarist ever, 80 percent of the time two names pop up: Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Jr. takes the best of both. While his super cover of Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” (which he mixes with great effect to his original “If You Love Me Like You Say”) is incredible, he sounds even more like the revolutionary on the powerful, yet groovy sonic free-jamming in the closing minutes of opener “Catfish Blues” or on the even-further-improved-upon-the-original “Bright Lights,” where his mind-bending solo stands right up alongside Jimi’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Yet within minutes, he’s laid back and soft on the instant classic “Things are Changin'” or set closer “When the Sun Goes Down,” during which he impressively honks on the harmonica while simultaneously delivering a guitar solo. While Jr.’s original take of “When My Train Pulls in” on his Bright Lights EP back in 2011 already pushed into the way-out-o-sphere, his new electric take on display here jacks up the intensity and sends it into its own extraterrestrial orbit. Even “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” a near throwaway on his studio take, captures a raw, emotive energy that was absent on the original. It’s clear that while he may have his moments in the studio, Gary Clark Jr. was born to play on the stage.
The major surprise here, though, doesn’t come from his guitar playing. Rather, it’s the honesty and longing on display in his soulful crooning that creates somber or joyful moods depending on the subject matter. Jr. sounds eerily like a young Steven Tyler on the Hard-Rocking “Travis County” that could’ve easily been a lost Aerosmith gem, and his heartfelt stirrings on “Things are Changin'” sound more honest and remarkable than they did three years ago. As good as everything here is, though, it’s the tear-jerking “Please Come Home” that steals the show. Rarely has such angst and quiet desperation come through so strongly, so jarringly as it does when Jr. mixes his incredible high tenor with some of the best emotional picking on record. Not only is this six minute blast of raw emotion his strongest recording, it’s one of the best heartbroken songs period.
Even if the often subdued live audience may not quite understand the magic they’re witnessing as Gary Clark Jr. rips through masterpiece after masterpiece, he doesn’t really need them. More than anything, Jr. plays for himself on that stage, drawing on personal memories that somehow relate to a broader audience. He knows how good he is, evident on the lyrics in “Ain’t Messin’ Around.” “I don’t believe in competition/Ain’t nobody else like me around/It ain’t that hard to figure it out,” he rightly proclaims. Gary Clark Jr. may not owe us a thang, but when he’s capable of capturing that elusive lightning in a bottle, we’ll take what we can get.