Gary Clark Jr. Boldly Plays New LP in Full at Austin City Limits

Taping finds hometown hero at a meditative musical crossroads

Gary Clark Jr. at the Moody Theater on March 26 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

For his fourth Austin City Limits taping, on Tuesday night at the Moody Theater, Gary Clark Jr. made a bold move.

The hometown hero didn’t play any old hits or covers and even eschewed an encore, instead solely showcasing the entirety of his just-released fourth studio album, JPEG Raw. The ensuing 90 minutes took a metaphoric deep dive into the concepts of the record title’s acronym: Jealousy, Pride, Envy, Greed … Rules, Alter Ego, World.

Those elements translated across the 12 tracks, their decided sonic variety marking the advent of a new era in Clark’s musical journey. Like the album itself, the show unfurled as a map tracing criss-crossing paths through the varied styles which led to his current moment. There were tidbits of his Texas blues rock bedrock but, more prominently, Nineties R&B, classic funk and soul, plus accents of jazz and African rhythms.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

The message emerged immediately with kickoff “Maktub.” The word’s meaning in Arabic, “it is written” and the lyrics – “we gotta move … time for a new revolution” – immediately signaled Clark’s commitment to his current transformative state, presumably the result of self-reflective sessions during COVID-19 lockdown.

Still, he didn’t deny his blues roots, embracing them as cohesive accents to his new influences. The album’s title track drove the message home, ending with a flurry of slide guitar licks. Perhaps nodding to those early inspirations, they were played on the same Ibanez guitar he used in his formative days at Austin High School.

He held the instrument up for emphasis before starting the song.

“They told me all I needed was this one guitar … to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan. That was a lie,” he quipped, drawing laughs from the audience. “But I still get inspired every time I pick [it up]. Happy 50,” he concluded, full-circle referring to the currently unfolding 50th season of the storied TV show, a staple of his childhood viewing.

King Zapata (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Many of the live renditions leaned on old-school funk and soul, which resonated cinematically. Of the album’s prominent collaborators, the only in-person appearance came from local singer Naala on “This is Who We Are.” Still, the group had no issues emulating additions from not-present legends Stevie Wonder (“What About the Children”) and George Clinton (“Funk Witch U”). During those, and for much of the set, Clark notably hung back to lean on his expansive band of industry all-stars Elijah Ford (bass) and J.J. Johnson (drums), plus mainstays King Zapata (rhythm guitar) and John Deas (keys). His three sisters Shawn, Savannah, and Shanan provided sublime backup vocals.

Trying on yet another format, on standout “Alone Together,” Clark uncharacteristically ditched his guitar and moved fluidly around the stage wielding only his mic. Once again, the spotlight shifted to his ensemble, with Deas’ jazzy keys giving way to a Motown bop à la the Supremes, sung sublimely by his three siblings.

Gary Clark Jr.'s sisters on vocals (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

The most comprehensive representation of Clark’s sonic crossroads came on closing track “Habits,” where he and his band traversed several distinct, almost orchestral movements. The composition started with a few dreamy, vocal harmony-laden measures before slowing, pausing, and breaking into a quick-hit, military-style march that came to a hard stop. Finally, a genre-melding buildup topped off with one of the enthralling, screaming guitar solos that put him on the map years ago.

Throughout the show, Clark prompted the audience (and himself) to “breathe,” reflecting on meditations he adopted while creating JPEG Raw during pandemic tumult. When “Habits” faded into its penultimate peaceful notes before a moment of total silence, it felt as if the band and entire audience exhaled in unison.

J.J. Johnson (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
Photo by David Brendan Hall

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Gary Clark Jr., Austin City Limits, ACL TV, JPEG Raw, Naala

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