Gary Clark Jr. forges a new kind of blues at Redondo BeachLife
by Whitney Youngs
The blues is everywhere in American music. It is the aesthetic foundation of all American music. The blues, like water, is formless, because the blues was called upon in the invocations of the enslaved. The blues could not take a particular shape as it had to navigate a cruel and brutal institution and give voice to the oppressed. So out of the ancestral roots of the blues springs forth all other kinds of American music.
Guitarist and singer Gary Clark Jr., an Austin, Texas native, might know something about this being that his unique stylings seem to incorporate elements of funk, soul, R&B, even hip-hop into the blues. Like so many other stellar guitarists, Clark Jr. started out learning his instrument by copying what he heard on albums, according to his Words + Music recording, “Deep Soul Lowdown,” which is part of an Audible Original series that combines self-narrated storytelling with songs.
“The guitar for me was something that when I get my hands on that thing, I’m all in. I don’t know why I felt that way,” explains Clark Jr. “I would hear these records, like the Van Halen solo on ‘Beat It.’ You hear something like that, then hearing like a moody, you know, like a Wes Montgomery tone. That’s the same instrument? You can express yourself like that? What?!”
Clark Jr., who got his first guitar in the sixth grade, would listen to record after record. He then found out many of the singers and musicians recorded on these albums—like virtuoso guitarist Doug Sahm or singer and pianist Marcia Ball—would swing through town to play a gig at Antone’s nightclub in downtown Austin.
“Once it was on, it was just on, so I just was all in for two years, you know, you couldn’t tell me anything,” recalls Clark Jr. “The kids were going out, hanging out, but like I said, I battled with doing that, but nah, I just want to hang out with my guitar and my headphones, and I’ll catch ya at school. I spent a lot a lot a lot of time by myself and just listening to records.”
Clark Jr. began going to the shows at Antone’s, and there was no turning back. As a teenager, Clark Jr. toured the homegrown Texas electric guitar circuit and sat in with veteran musicians at local clubs. He eventually made his way onto the stage at Antone’s, sitting in with the likes of blues legends, Jimmie Vaughn, Hubert Sumlin Jr., and Pinetop Perkins at various times in his early beginnings.
“I want to be inside the music, I need that, so when I got my guitar, school went out the window. I was practicing all day long, all night long […] I was up all night learning how to play ‘Little Wing.’ I want to learn how to play ‘Born Under a Bad Sign,’ I want to dial my tone in to sound like Albert King. I want to bend my notes like Albert King because I feel that expression. It makes me feel something, so I want to be able to feel that myself.”
Clark Jr.’s latest studio record, “This Land,” released in 2019, follows two other studio albums put out on the Warner Bros. label, “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim” (2015) and “Blak and Blu” (2012).
The title song confronts the viciousness perpetrated on “the other,” those people believed to be foreign to America based on bigoted sentiments about this country being made for some but not all, a view starkly contrasted to the communal romanticisms sung by Woody Guthrie on the song sharing the same title. (Clark Jr. gave Guthrie co-writing credit.)
Gary Clark Jr. plays BeachLife Sept. 12.
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