Eight months ago at private Hollywood venue the Sayers Club, Texas guitarist Gary Clark Jr. stood on a tiny stage with his backing band and performed to a small but capacity crowd of handpicked music industry insiders.
The 28-year-old player, who came up in a storied Austin blues scene that takes its music seriously, had just been signed by Warner Bros. Records, after years of being managed by his mother from the family's kitchen table and releasing music independently. Last week, Warner released his major label debut, "Blak and Blu."
Though Clark had established himself in Texas and had just released a new four-song EP, most were there as much out of curiosity as drooling anticipation. Then the lanky musician and his band started playing, and within moments the room seemed to fill with fresh oxygen as he tore through "Bright Lights," a furious, electrified Clark original that uses as its foundation a variation on a lyric from a Jimmy Reed blues classic. He confidently ripped through his song "When My Train Pulls In" as though he'd been doing this for decades.
When he strummed the distorted opening riffs of Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun," it felt like an incitement, a dare, an invitation to compare, especially when he bridged it with his own work, "If You Love Me Like You Say."
By the end I understood something vitally new about a song I've air-guitared to for a few decades now, and after the set was done the music supervisors, late-night talk show bookers, journalists and others had Gary Clark Jr. on the brain: a cocksure instrumentalist whose talent transcended genre, and whose emotion bled through his fingers and his voice.
A similar thing happened at Coachella, except on a much larger stage, where Clark controlled a crowd whose tastes for American blues extend little further than barbecue sauce commercials. There, "Third Stone" connected a dead legend and a young protégé, and the eardrums of young fans reared on hip-hop and techno got dented by different kinds of vibrations. He did the same at Bonnaroo in Tennessee later in the season to a different kind of crowd, to similar raves. Ditto Lollapalooza in Chicago. Last month he joined Jay-Z onstage as part of the rapper's inaugural Philadelphia music festival, Made in America. Clark will perform three sold-out nights at the Troubadour from Nov. 13-15.
Then again, he's got a lot of experience up there. Clark said during an interview last week that his debut onstage performance was at the behest of Clifford Antone, owner of storied Austin blues club Antone's. "It was historical," said Clark. "Everybody wants to be on that stage. And Cliff was like, 'You want to get up there and play?'" On the stage waiting for him was Howlin' Wolf's guitarist Hubert Sumlin and a few other legends.
"My first time," he says, his voice filling with wonder, "was with Hubert, Pinetop Perkins, and James Cotton — 'Superharp.' I'm 15 years old. It was a trip."
Last Monday morning after a long night performing at Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit in San Francisco, Clark and band were already rehearsing on a Burbank stage about the size of the Sayers Club's. This one would soon face a bigger audience, though: viewers of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." His band rolling with a three-piece horn section, the guitarist with skinny, nimble fingers was ripping through "Ain't Messin 'Round" in anticipation of the show-ending performance. It was the same day that Clark's "Blak and Blu" was released, and the artist had a full schedule. More rehearsals, a photo shoot, the Leno performance, and a release party in Hollywood.
"The Tonight Show" studio was empty save Clark, his band and management, recording engineers and Leno's music segment producer Barbera Libis, but a thrill still cascaded through the room as he soundchecked the song.
When he was done, Clark, wearing a flat-brimmed Texas hat, escaped to the NBC lot for a smoke before sitting down in his dressing room to relax before a second round of rehearsals.
Clark, who still lives in Austin, has a calm, composed demeanor that belies the fact that he's the obvious rock star in any room he enters. He says that despite his obsession with the blues as he was learning the guitar, he was falling in love with lots of music simultaneously, from Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to Nirvana and Pearl Jam. When he sat down with Warner Bros. executives to talk about his album, he insisted on playing them a stylistic variety of his music, not just the blues-based numbers.
"I was pretty hardheaded about not sticking to one certain thing," he said of an early meeting with, among others, Warner Bros. Records Chairman Rob Cavallo and producer Mike Elizondo (best known as a hip-hop bassist, producer and co-writer of Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady"), both of whom produced songs on "Blak and Blu." "Folks wanted to have a straighter, more focused album, like a blues rock type of thing. Everyone's been talking about the Black Keys, stuff like that. I dig them, and I had this background of being a blues artist, but at the same time the things I'd been recording and playing were all over the place."
Thus, "Blak and Blu" is more than a blues rock record, even if it features some essential blues lines and builds nearly every song using it as a foundation. Within its 13 tracks are hard-rock songs and more contemporary-sounding rhythm and blues. He touches foot-stomping country blues on "Next Door Neighbor Blues," and suggests a more rustic John Legend on "Things Are Changin'." The album's biggest departure is Clark's "The Life," a bouncy, introspective contemporary R&B; jam sure to rile the traditionalists among his fan base. Combined, the record suggests sounds that include mid-1970s Rolling Stones, groove-filled Curtis Mayfield and hard-hitting Otis Redding-styled soul jams.
His intention, he said, was to be straight with his label and his potential fan base from the start. "I told them, I don't want to get put in this box right away, and then branch out into all the other things that I love as well later on, and those be [considered] the weird albums. I think it's really important to throw it all out there now, and get a full-scope idea of what's actually going on.
"After a few conversations, they were cool with it," he concluded.
They had little choice. Clark says that by the time he sat down with Warner Bros., he'd already been approached by major labels. They experienced something akin to what Leno's music producer Libis saw the first time she came across him. She called Clark's booking "a no-brainer," adding that she's only felt a similar certainty a few times in her years booking music — among them, as Norah Jones' debut album was rising, and when the Civil Wars broke out of the South in 2011.
But such intuition doesn't mean much in the scheme of things. If fans aren't buying what Clark is selling, such success won't happen.
As an example of the battle he faces, Clark tells the story of watching a clip of blues-funk player Johnny "Guitar" Watson being interviewed by Don Cornelius on "Soul Train." Slipping into a practiced, slow-drawled impersonation, Clark mimicked the host observing that Watson was considered a blues artist, but was trying out new sounds.
Recounts Clark: "Johnny's like, 'Yeah, man, blues ain't too popular now, you know, so I'm trying to do different things, finding different grooves, and experimenting.'"
Clark has a similar reflex on "Blak and Blu," and delivers it with an equal sense of adventure.