“I feel fantastic, in case you were wondering,” Gary Clark Jr said with a smile midway through his electrifying set at the Civic in New Orleans on September 12th. From the first notes of “Bright Lights” to the last explosive vibrations of “Numb,” the Austin, Texas, bluesman took the packed in like sardines crowd through the blues, soul, R&B and rock & roll rhythms of his musical palette. With a lightning hot band behind him – Johnny Bradley on bass, Johnny Radelat on drums and King Zapata on guitar – Clark was the epitome of cool. “I might take my shirt off,” he said after one hot musical interlude.
Thinking Clark is solely a blues aficionado is a mistake. The man has plenty more genres running through his veins and each one was spotlighted during his sixteen song set. “Our Love” was a slow R&B number, humming with a warm guitar solo. “Next Door Neighbor Blues” strutted through swampy slide waters while “Don’t Owe You A Thang” moved along a shuffle beat accompanied by a washboard bounce. “Church” saw Clark bring out the harmonica, accompanied by only Radelat, following a chant of “Gary” during the intermission between set-ender and encore.
Clark’s latest album is 2015’s The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, which brought forth more of the sweet soul and R&B flavors than the more blues rock tinged Blak & Blu that had everybody falling over themselves to bask in the light of the next big Hendrixian prophet of the blues. Thankfully, Clark didn’t settle for one crown and continued to explore what lay in the grain of his Gibson. Popular at festivals, this year alone he has played the New Orleans Jazz Fest, Forecastle in Kentucky, Glastonbury in England, Mountain Jam in New York and Coachella in California. Not bad for a kid who cut his teeth at Austin’s famous Antone’s music club and garnered favor with Eric Clapton, first appearing at his Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2010.
Recognition should also be given to Clark’s band, as gumbo is not made from protein alone. Zapata especially was riveting, saucing up guitar solos of his own, most noticeably on “Grinder.” Radelat, who has been with Clark for the last five or so years, has a style that fits right in with Clark’s musical moods, having no problem handling the guitarist’s penchant for throwing out audibles in place of a structured setlist; as was Bradley who keeps everyone in synch amongst the chaos. Without them, “Ain’t Messin’ Round” wouldn’t have been as explosive, “When My Train Pulls In” wouldn’t have been as spiritual and “Numb” might not have gone face first into the Sabbath-y nether regions of hardcore rock.
Almost the opposite of Clark’s fiery bonfire was opener The Sisterhood. With beautiful harmonies floating all over the old New Orleans theatre, it was immaculate. A little bit country, a little bit folk, Alyssa Bonagura and Ruby Stewart were a sweet surprise blessing to people expecting something a bit more raucous. Like a creamy mint of harmonic convergence with songs like “Someone’s,” “Tenderize My Heart” and “Gasoline Alley,” and flirting with some spiritual revitalization on “Ride,” these ladies have such a bright career ahead of them that shades may be required. With only their voices, an acoustic guitar and the occasional tambourine to bring their songs to life, they were indeed the perfect appetizer to Clark’s red hot set.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough