Play Jimmy Reed
Gary Clark Jr. stays home
Gary Clark Jr. squeezed every last lemon drop out of his debut EP and LP for Warner Bros., The Bright Lights EP (2011) and Blak and Blu (2012). That includes entertaining President Obama, repeatedly guesting onstage with the Rolling Stones, winning a Grammy, opening an NBA All-Star Game with a slide guitar national anthem, and earning accolades from both six-string sages like Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy as well as mic moguls Jay Z and Nas.
Now comes Gary Clark Jr. Live, a double album of hot cuts that arrives as the essential documentation of the native Austinite found in record stores.
Better still, after three years of continuous touring, Clark's come home to rest. He's been seen at his friends' shows, and a recent Daily Telegraph piece about his Australian supermodel girlfriend Nicole Trunfio stated the couple have purchased a home locally. His other homegrown investment: signing on last month as a partner in Antone's, the historic blues club currently being resurrected by famed geneticist Spencer Wells and Lamberts/Arlyn Studios impresario Will Bridges.
On Tuesday, August 5, Clark took my midnight phone call to confirm the Antone's deal. I expected nothing more than a short quote, but talking about the club opened a floodgate of memories for the soft-spoken guitarist who reminisced about his musical beginnings, the old-timers who schooled him, and the last words spoken to him by blues godfather Clifford Antone before his death in 2006. We posted it to Earache! immediately and press it here to newsprint for the first time.
Austin Chronicle: What does Antone's mean to you?
Gary Clark Jr.: Antone's is a place I learned about from my good friend Eve Monsees. She would talk about it. I went down there with my dad, and it was sold out. Buddy Guy, someone I'd seen on the Austin City Limits TV show, was playing. We hung outside anyway and just listened. I was in love with it.
The first time I went in, it was the Moeller brothers with the Keller brothers. They had this thing called the Mercy Baby Revue. I loved it. It inspired me to be a better guitar player, a better singer, a better musician. Antone's is my foundation. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if it hadn't been for Antone's. It allowed me to experiment, explore, and try to better myself as a musician. I was fortunate enough to hear stories and history from Pinetop Perkins and James Cotton. Everything felt so justified. It all made sense when I was at Antone's.
AC: How old were you when you debuted there?
GC: I was 15. My dad took me and Eve down there one night for the anniversary – maybe '98 or so. I sat in with Hubert Sumlin, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Mojo Buford, George Raines, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones. When I got offstage, Cliff was like, "You got something kid." He made me feel like I was okay, like I meant something. Like I was part of something.
I was a kid sitting around playing my guitar with no direction. I already loved to play, but when I jumped onstage at Antone's, I felt like I was part of something important. At 15, everyone wants to feel like they're part of something cool, but I felt like I was part of something cooler than anybody could ever imagine at my age.
It changed the way I thought about life and ended my search for acceptance, because I knew this was what I was supposed to do. Clifford Antone told me I'm okay, and Muddy Waters told him he's okay, and BB King told him he's cool, and Buddy Guy was like, "Cliff Antone's legit," and Jimmie Vaughan was like, "Cliff Antone is the guy." So when "the guy" told me that I was okay, I felt like I was going to be okay regardless of what my parents or my peers thought.
This was the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my life and from that day on, it changed the way I thought about what I was going to do with my life. It changed everything really. I was obsessed. I was there every night. I really wanted to be a part of this thing that Clifford Antone told me I was part of. I wanted to make him proud.
That's what Antone's means to me. When I came back home and I walked through the doors of Antone's, I walked in with two questions for myself: "Did I make Cliff proud?" and "Am I doing this for the right reasons?" Every time I walked in, I was like, "Yes I did. Yes I am," because I felt accepted.
It's legendary man! Albert King, Albert Collins, Freddie King – hearing stories about those guys playing and hanging out. It was the best gig anyone had ever seen.
I still walk down these streets in Austin, Texas, and people will come up to me and say, "You remind me of the time I saw such and such, and it was one of the greatest experiences I ever had. Thank you for continuing to carry on this tradition." At 15, I didn't understand that. At 30, I understand that and it's even more special.
AC: Does making Clifford Antone proud factor into your investment in Antone's?
GC: Definitely. The last time I saw him, I was playing onstage at Antone's at Fifth and Lavaca. He came up to me during the show. I was playing something off the beaten path. It wasn't really lowdown blues. It wasn't what he opened the club for. He came up to me during the set and said, "Hey man, play some Jimmy Reed," then walked off. That was last time I saw him.
He's like, "Remember what I told you about Eddie Taylor? These people need to hear some Jimmy Reed." He was laughing, but at the same time it was serious and heavy and I listened to every word he said because I wouldn't be there if it weren't for him. So he walked off and I didn't play any Jimmy Reed and that was the last time I saw him.
After I heard he passed, I was like, "You know what? He was really telling me something." It wasn't just him wanting to hear some Jimmy Reed. It was him saying, "Hey man, this is important." For him to come up in the middle of my set and say, "Play Jimmy Reed," I know now that was more important than me just getting up here and trying to impress people with some guitar solos. This is a style of music that laid the foundation for everything.
He used to tell me that all the time. Eddie Taylor and Hubert Sumlin, these guys invented rock & roll. And James Cotton – no one can touch him. Pinetop Perkins, he was there. He's the dude.
I didn't understand this as a kid, but at 30 – running around and seeing all the things I've seen and going to these blues festivals where people talk about Antone's and the scene in Austin – it always comes back to this place and how special it was. It means everything to me.