Gary Clark Jr., a Texas-bred, 20-something blues talent possessing the good looks and guitar licks perfectly suited for stardom, arrives at Voodoo with all the gravitas surrounding an unassuming anointed one.
Positioned on Voodoo's playbill just below Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members present (Metallica) and future (Jack White), Clark, 28, returns to New Orleans for his third show in 15 months as both a familiar name and face. On the dog-days end of a summer in which he graduated to Bonnaroo's big stage and was cited in Spin as "Most Booked Festival Act," Clark shredded our House of Blues' Parish in September 2011 in a raucous crowd-pleaser highlighted by an encore cover of Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" and communal realization that a star this bright would never play a room that small ever again.
In February, Clark stole the show at the star-studded "Red, White and the Blues" concert at the White House in celebration of Black History Month. Standing in doe-eyed humility before President Barack Obama and showcased in a national PBS broadcast, Clark, backed by a "house" band that included silky-smooth Stax Records Hammond B3 impressario Booker T., served up two traditional tunes: "In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)" — a favorite of everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Ray Charles — before unleashing a blistering "Catfish Blues," a simple song covered by many but electrified by another young man likewise blessed with immense talent, searing psychedelic energy and crossover appeal: Jimi Hendrix.
Clark's comparison to Hendrix is both deserved and obvious. But between self-conscious quotes in magazines like Rolling Stone (which quoted him on his much-anticipated, much-publicized Warner Bros. debut Blak and Blu, released Oct. 22, as saying, "There's a lot more pressure, which I can understand. But at the same time, I'm only human. I can only do so much.") and slick publicity photos shot in settings decidedly more Lower East Side than Texas hill country, one might ponder the consequences of laying such a heavy load on such slim shoulders and sensitive, artistic mindset.
One birthday beyond the music gods' frequently fatal 27th trip around the sun that consumed the genius of Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Robert Johnson and, yes, Hendrix, Clark still dwells in the astrological Saturn in return phase that yields either expansion or extermination.
Though not a sink-or-swim scenario, Clark's Blak and Blu release carries the threat of a sophomore jinx. Clark's early rise was an organic, word-of-mouth climb as he recorded material for his own Austin, Texas-based Hot-wire Unlimited label beginning in 2004. But his 2011 EP Bright Lights launched a much sharper rise toward fame and fortune.
Clark has the chops of an A-list axe-slinger, as he uses Epiphone Casino and Gibson ES335 electric guitars to fantastic effect on Blak and Blu, which features cherry-picked cuts from Clark's Hotwire catalogue in addition to new songs. His voice — as soulful as it is world-weary — shines through the album. Yet, Blak and Blu, produced by Michael Elizondo (Dr. Dre) and Rob Cavallo (Green Day) and recorded with players not from his typical touring band, is both thrilling and puzzling.
The blasting horn arrangements and sexual swagger marking the opening "Ain't Messin 'Round" are reminiscent of Lenny Kravitz-like pop, but its boasting of, "I don't believe in competition/ Ain't nobody else like me around" befits an alpha-male bluesmen. His stellar guitar work moves from the Chuck Berry-boogie of "Travis County" to the full-tilt frenzy of "When My Train Pulls In" to the distorted, furious fuzz of "Numb." In seemingly striving to avoid a retro-roots pigeon hole, Clark makes curious choices in tone and temperament on tunes like "Please Come Home," exuding a pathetic, pubescent puppy-love vibe, and "The Life," a goofy stretch into hip-hop. The closing "Next Door Neighbor Blues" offers relief from such diversions, and Clark's solid slide work on his Epiphone acoustic and lyrical imagery of Cadillacs and pissed-off, pistol-waving women create a front-porch foot-stomper good enough to rank Clark among the titans in blues' time-honored tradition.
In a studio take on a thunderous moment from this past New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Clark's mojo melds into magic on "If You Love Me like You Say" by fellow Texan Albert Collins. As in his Blues Tent performance, Clark weaves Hendrix's trippy instrumental "Third Stone from the Sun" in and out of the verses, rendering in it a majestic revelation as blissful as it was decades ago.
Blak and Blu inspires debate over Clark's tone and temperament and whether they are best realized not in the studio but in live performance. The album also generates hope as he armors himself against music industry machinations with Shakespeare's "To thine own self be true" advice. Or perhaps it's best if, as night falls on City Park, this beatific young man, a rising star burning brightly, flips his finger to the deus ex machina behind the curtain and rips a face-melting "Voodoo Chile." — FRANK ETHERIDGE