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SXSW 2003

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Photo By John Anderson

Gary Clark Jr.

On a hot September afternoon last fall, Gary Clark Jr. took bows to thunderous applause. His set at the Austin City Limits Music Festival had blistered like the sun, hot blues channeled from Alberts, both Collins and King. With less than six years of experience, Clark has played happy hours, opened for Bobby "Blue" Bland at the Victory Grill, sat in at Antone's with Calvin Jones and Pinetop Perkins, released a self-titled album nearly a year ago, toured "anywhere they'll let me play," and practiced day and night. At Zilker Park that afternoon, he stood facing the future, tall and proud in the moment, 18 years old.

Tonight, Clark is seated on a chrome barstool on the minuscule stage at Joe's Generic Bar as the clock ticks just past 8pm, Sixth Street time. People start trickling in as Jay Moeller and Matt Farrell set up their drums and keyboards, respectively, while Clark tunes. It's not unusual for James Cotton or Jimmie Vaughan to stop and sit in at these gigs. Clark accepts such acknowledgement graciously, a smile on his dark, handsome face. This is what listening to his parents' R&B and Motown records came to.

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"I appreciate hip-hop and DJs and that stuff, but blues is what I play," states Clark. "I like Albert and Freddie King. Elmore James. I like Howlin' Wolf's voice, but I can't sing like him. I listen to Marley a lot, Motown, Stevie Wonder. When I was young, my parents would put on a Jackson 5 record. I used to think I was Michael Jackson: I'd dance. I was about 4 and tried my hardest to get everything right."

If Gary Clark has the future written all over him, he's that way with permission from the past. The strapping, silver-haired bassist tuning up with him is Bill Campbell, 58, a guitarist so underrated in his hometown that he never even places in the Chronicle's Music Poll. With Campbell aboard, he who led wide-eyed transplants like Stevie Vaughan and Doyle Bramhall to Eastside blues joints like Charlie's Playhouse and Ernie's Chicken Shack in 1970, Clark's obviously gotten the nod. Not only is Campbell's presence never gratuitous, through him Clark is directly connected with the heart of Austin's musical history.

"I believe in Gary," confides Campbell. "He's the real deal. His playing is natural and honest, and he's as ate up with it as any I've ever seen. Plus, he's a distant cousin of W.C. Clark."

Back at Joe's, the small room fills up with a Saturday night audience as Farrell and Moeller slide into "Good Night Irene." Campbell hits a bottom note that makes Clark look over and grin. The guitarist has a lot to smile about: Tonight Gary Clark Jr. turns 19 years old.

"I don't want to be famous," Clark confesses. "I just wanna play."

SXSW showcase: Antone's, Wednesday, March 12, 10pm

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