Ain't Messin 'Round

Completing a music festival grand slam at ACL, Gary Clark Jr. gets 'Blak and Blu'

Ain't Messin 'Round
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

He's gone from "the gospel tent" to the main stage, and it only took a decade.

As an 18-year-old recent graduate of Austin High, blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. played the very first Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2002. Sunday, he'll perform on a headliner stage after destroying crowds everywhere but home in Austin all year. His full-length major label debut, Blak and Blu, comes out amongst much fanfare Oct. 22, but Clark's career remains built on a live set that leaves palm prints on foreheads.

Every kid who's played a guitar and sang in his or her bedroom knows the dream Gary Clark Jr. is living right now. The opposite of Joe's Generic Bar on Sixth Street (where Clark played for tips as a teen) is playing for tens of thousands of wild-eyed fans night after night. He's the most exciting young guitarist since Robert Randolph. And Clark can sing.

This was the summer of lovin' GCJ, with the bearded 28-year-old's ACL appearance completing a 2012 Grand Slam that began at Coachella in April, took him to Bonnaroo in June, and then up to Lollapalooza in August. Killed it. Killed it. Killed it. Mixed in with the big four were appearances at Metallica's Orion Music + More Fest, Jay-Z's Made in America Festival, New Orleans' R&B heavy Essence Music Festival, Sasquatch near Seattle, Alabama's up-and-coming Hangout Music Festival, Milwaukee's Summerfest, and more.

With a mastery of blues that's both natural and psychedelic, this son of a South Austin car salesman has become his generation's guitar hero, a young black man proudly playing the blues in the era of hip-hop domination. Sometimes you can go through an entire Clark review without reading the name Jimi Hendrix.

Strike and Sustain

The downside to incessant touring is that Clark's Warner Bros. long-player, teased by the critically acclaimed The Bright Lights EP last August, has been a long time coming. Nobody spends a year and a half on a blues disc, so when Blak and Blu was sent to critics last month it wasn't surprising to find Clark stretching out on horn-driven soul ("Ain't Messin 'Round") and balls-to-the-wall rock ("Travis County"), while also employing bedroom vibes and a Gil Scott-Heron sample on the title track, getting Stevie Wonderish with "Glitter Ain't Gold," and aiming for radio on the alt-pop of "The Life." Bright Lights was the calling card. Blak and Blu is Clark showing up at the front door with a mixed bag.

Strike and sustain are guitarist terms that also apply to Clark's career. He's been striking while bookings are hot, but he knew he needed an LP to sustain the flash, so he took his sweet time. Forget about writing songs on the festival circuit. Most of the 13 tracks on Blak and Blu are old Clark tunes re-recorded with a new band, including Austin's J.J. Johnson on drums and touring guitarist Eric Zapata, another AHS alum.

From South by Southwest in mid-March until last week, Clark didn't spend a single night in Austin. Asked in June if he still lived in a house off Brodie Lane, Clark laughed, "I hope so." The new album ends with "Next Door Neighbor Blues," an acoustic number that plays off his fear of coming home to find his belongings piled up in front of the house.

"I miss my family like crazy," he said of his three sisters and parents. "My oldest sister had a baby and my youngest sister graduated from high school and I wasn't there, which really hurt."

You get only one chance to make your international debut and Clark's got a lot to live up to, what with critics invoking comparisons to you-know-who. One thing separating Clark from other nouveau Jimis is that he's the same race as the original, who was inspired by Buddy Guy, who was inspired by Lightnin' Slim – who Clark emulated when blues took over his life at age 13.

He wasn't even aware that it was unique for a young African-American to follow the genre's originators until a classmate at Austin High, also black, informed him "black folks don't play the blues." Knowing he was playing for more than tips and chicks, the anti-John Mayer spent his time learning rather than burning. Clark's emphasis on tone and feel plus a lightning-quick thunder of notes put him in a class by himself. Authenticity is the bacon of Clark's buffet and among those who've piled on the gritty blues reborn are a Beatle named Paul, a sitting U.S. president who led a standing ovation, and the older brother of the last young blues guitarist to cause such a stir.

"There are certain things that can't be taught," says Jimmie Vaughan, who brought Clark to the attention of Eric Clapton, a major figure in the young bluesman's rise. "You either get it or you don't, and even as a 13-year-old, Gary got it. He understands that a solo has a beginning, a middle, and an end. He sings like he plays and he plays like he sings. So smooth."

Among those who mentored "Hotwire," as he was nicknamed by the older cats, was vintage Austin blues guitarist W.C. Clark, who played with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Lou Ann Barton in Triple Threat Revue. When the two got talking about family after a gig at Momo's, they realized they were actually second cousins.

When he and his sisters were young, "Big Gary" tried to organize them into a family group, but the younger Gary, who once wanted to be the next Michael Jackson and claims to have the Thriller moves down, maintains he was born to go solo.

He lived on the edge of his bed, where a permanent dent attests to the hundreds of hours he spent trying to figure out "how did they get that sound?" Clark spent five years, ages 13 to 18, trying to replicate what he heard on records, and the last decade trying to duplicate what he heard in his head.

Backstage at Bonnaroo, where I traveled in June to interview Clark for Texas Monthly, seemingly every black person he encountered – the guards, the stagehands, the clean-up crew, other musicians – shook his hand, called out a "hey, man," or gave him a nod and thumbs up. And Clark interacted, very much in his element. He knows he's got folks rooting for him.

Gary Clark Jr. at SXSW 2012
Gary Clark Jr. at SXSW 2012 (Photo by Sandy Carson)

Yet like a young MJ, Clark doesn't seem comfortable with media attention. When it came time for our 30-minute interview, with a publicist nearby keeping time, the words to his song "Don't Owe You a Thing" rang true. "Me and this guitar is all you get." He repeats each question to give himself more time to think.

Don't mistake Clark's shyness for aloofness. He's still the same guy – humble, polite, a little goofy – that I met when he was 17 and mopped up a Victory Grill crowd that had come to see Bobby Blue Bland. He doesn't like to talk about himself, which made 15 hours of driving each way to Bonnaroo seem silly in retrospect.

Still, interviewing a veteran of Austin's music trenches who's making a name for himself nationally is something I've almost never had the opportunity to do in 28 years of covering local music. For every Timbuk3, Butthole Surfers, and Spoon, there are dozens of Sincolas, Poi Dog Ponderings, and David Garzas who just can't miss. One has to go back to Stevie Ray Vaughan 30 years ago to find an Austinite who's had a point in his career where Clark finds himself today.

Bright Lights, Big City

Blak and Blu is no Texas Flood. Nor is it trying to be. Co-producer Mike Elizondo helmed projects as dissimilar as Mastodon, Fiona Apple, 50 Cent, Maroon 5, and Avenged Sevenfold, so he met Clark at the crossroads of being both comforted and challenged by the limitations of the blues.

"I have so many influences – Bob Marley, Parliament-Funkadelic, hip-hop, jazz, Jackson 5," nods Clark. "They've been creeping in to my sound."

No doubt to the dismay of label marketers, Blak and Blu is all over the place. Lead-off single "Ain't Messin 'Round" doesn't include those words and the album sequencing feels picked out of a hat. If it sounds patched together, that's because it was. The only unifying constant is Clark's playing, nasty fingerpicking that goes back to Lightnin' Hopkins and Albert Collins. On that alone, Clark will continue to be called "savior of the blues," a term to which he's grown an aversion.

"It's strange to be called the future or the savior of the blues, because there are so many great musicians that I look up to who've kept it going for years," he reasons.

Nobody else has made the blues cool to the hip-hop generation. When Warner Bros. held a party for Clark in Manhattan in June, among those on hand were not only actor Leonardo DiCaprio, but Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Questlove of the Roots, and super-producer Pharrell Williams. Alicia Keys, after duetting with Clark on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at a New York City benefit, gushed for everyone to "Google Gary Clark Jr." We'll save you the trouble.

Getting his first guitar, an Ibanez RX20 electric, for Christmas in 1996 at age 12, Clark went to the library and checked out a book on guitar instruction. By his birthday in February, he was working out SRV's "Pride and Joy" with his friend since third grade, Eve Monsees, who got Clark interested in playing blues guitar when they were in junior high. The two started making the rounds at local clubs, then had a dream fulfilled as teens when Clifford Antone called them onstage to jam with Howlin' Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin and Muddy Waters harmonica icon James Cotton. The 15-year-olds were hooked.

"As soon as I got a hold of a guitar, my grades suffered," admits Clark, who jammed often until last call at Joe's, Babe's, and Antone's on school nights. "My parents were telling me, 'Keep your studies up,' but I felt I was getting the best education possible down in the clubs."

On his 21st birthday at the Continental Club, Clark floored film director John Sayles, in town searching for a young African-American musician to play lead character Sonny Blake in the 2007 film Honeydripper. Sayles said he thought he'd have to settle for an actor pretending to play guitar and "felt very lucky to have found Gary."

That was all B.C: Before Crossroads. Clark's current "who's hot" status owes almost everything to 10 sensational minutes onstage at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago, June 2010. Demonstrating a growth in confidence to go with the beard, Clark took "Bright Lights, Big City" from Jimmy Reed and made it his own, declaring, "You're gonna know my name by the end of the night!" Just as Jimmie Vaughan had long advised him, Clark made every note count.

He had previously released three self-produced local CDs, playing every instrument on 110, named after the apartment he recorded it in. After Crossroads, Warner Bros. signed Clark and Sheryl Crow's manager Scooter Weintraub took over the young bluesman's career based on that one song – that single performance in Chicago. Who needs American Idol?

Red Hot and Blues

A dozen years after his Austin High classmate stunned Clark with "black folks don't play the blues," an older African-American approached the guitarist after rehearsal for a PBS performance and thanked him for keeping alive the tradition forged by Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and many, many more blacks who migrated to urban centers and electrified old field hollers.

"It was such an honor to meet President Obama," acknowledged Clark of February's "Red, White and Blues" event in the East Room of the White House. The commander in chief, seated with the first lady in the front row the next night, bobbed his head enthusiastically as Clark's music took him back to the south side of Chicago. "Here I was, this black guy from Austin, Texas, up there with Buddy Guy and B.B. King, playing for the first black president.

"I felt like I was a part of history."

That event was a footnote compared to the true legacy Clark's helping expand. He's the latest car on that Texas blues train going from Blind Lemon Jefferson to T-Bone Walker to Lightnin' Hopkins to Freddy King, and continuing through Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Gatemouth Brown, Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan. That's his lineage.

The blues had a baby and that baby's name is Gary Clark Jr.

Gary Clark Jr. performs at ACL on Sunday, Oct. 14, at 2:15pm on the AMD stage.

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Gary Clark Jr., Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Clifford Antone, Eve Monsees, W.C. Clark, Lightnin' Hopkins, John Sayles, Honeydripper, Hubert Sumlin, Eric Clapton, Crossroads, Barack Obama

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