True guitar heroes don’t come along often. So when one threatens to break into the pantheon, it tends to get some notice. Gary Clark Jr. grew up in his native Austin steeped in the blues; he started playing the local bar circuit at 15 (this was back in 1999), befriending Stevie Ray Vaughan’s older brother Jimmie and gradually making a name for himself as a kid with a brash, ballsy sound and a soulful singing voice to back it up. When Eric Clapton extended Clark a personal invitation to perform at the Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2010, the grapevine buzzed expectantly.
Now 28, Clark carries with him all the charisma and mystique of a young “savior of the blues,” as he’s been touted, but his musical vision is much more complex. For every reference to Elmore James or T-Bone Walker (especially on the rootsy, all-acoustic “Next Door Neighbor Blues”), he can unleash a snakebite wah-wah solo that recalls Jimi Hendrix (“When My Train Pulls In”) or dial it back to croon like D’Angelo on the title song, which undulates with hip-hop and G-funk thanks to producer/bassist Mike Elizondo. He can play straight Berry-meets-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll (“Travis County”), bang out a horn-fueled soul revue (“Ain’t Messin’ Around”) or fearlessly update his own heroes (Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” a song that Clark and his touring band usually fold into the blues-stomping standard “If You Love Me Like You Say,” as he does here). Whatever the direction, Clark provides the glue that makes it all work.
As the current trend in rock and soul revivalism dictates, it’s one thing to cop a sound, and another to sound original doing it. Clark might wear his influences on his sleeve, but he’s paid dues to get to where he is. You can hear it in “Numb,” the album’s sludge-rock centerpiece. “Well, I’m numb/ Heck woman, I can’t feel a thing!” he shouts, world-weary enough for a bluesman twice his age. He punctuates the sentiment with a ferocious, paint-peeling guitar solo. Whether or not Clark will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Hendrix, Clapton, Vaughan or Van Halen is up to history, but for now, he’s giving his contemporaries – Jack White and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach among them – something serious to think about.