When Gary Clark Jr. first played the esteemed Austin City Limits show back in 2012, he had something to prove. His major label debut, Blak and Blu, had been released not long before the appearance and he was playing in front of a hometown crowd on the same show that had exposed the world to some of the finest blues players in history. Clark’s blistering performance left jaws on the ground, easily earning it a place as one of the most memorable in ACL’s storied history.
On Monday night Gary Clark Jr. returned for his second taping as part of the 41st season of ACL. This time around felt more casual since most everyone in attendance seemed well aware of the searing blues Clark is capable of at this point. There was a different kind of excitement though, as the audience eagerly awaited the chance to hear songs off the follow-up to Blak and Blu, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, which drops on September 11 and was recorded in Austin. But before getting to the new stuff, Clark treated the adoring crowd to his massive blues number “Bright Lights”. The mod rock riffing and funky groove of “Ain’t Messin’ Around” was further enhanced with the help of a horn section composed of Austin’s beloved Afro-Beat group Hard Proof, and “When My Train Pulls In” was heavy and sinister in all the right ways, with Clark’s mountainous solo bringing it right into the station.
Now that he had the audience eating from his hand, Clark moved into his new material, most of which had not been heard by the majority of this audience. From the opening silky solo of “Hold On” it was immediately obvious that Clark is taking his sound in a different direction on Sonny Boy Slim. Lyrically, much of the newer songs felt more socially aware of the plague of racial injustice and gun violence in America that is impossible to ignore now. On “Hold On” as well as songs like “Our Love”, “BYOB”, and “Cold Blooded”, it was clear Clark has found inspiration from artists like D’Angelo who tap into something funky, slow, and sultry. In his new songs, Clark put his voice in the spotlight, showing off his sexy vocal range as he sat at the piano for the oozy, soulful confession, “Wings”. The blues guitar playing was still present in the new songs, but Clark took a more nuanced, minimal approach, which actually worked well.
Where Gary Clark Jr.’s performance on Monday lacked the all out intensity of his first ACL taping, it instead showed an artist maturing musically as he discovers new sounds. He deserves praise for using the show – which streamed live – to show off a handful of songs that haven’t been road tested. The new songs went over well, especially the encore of “Shake” that rocked hard enough to turn the venue into a dance party, or perhaps the crowd was just celebrating one of Austin’s greatest musical exports.
Photos by Scott Newton and used courtesy of KLRU/ACL.