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Pop music review: Gary Clark Jr. lives up to hype at Troubadour

The blues-rock guitarist displays a virtuoso¿s skills and a commanding stage presence in the first of three sold-out shows.

November 15, 2012|By August Brown
  • Blues guitar virtuoso Gary Clark Jr. performed a blistering set at the Troubador on Tuesday night. Many praise him as the new Jimi Hendrix.
Blues guitar virtuoso Gary Clark Jr. performed a blistering set at the Troubador… (Michael Robinson Chavez/Los…)

Anyone who believes that rock and roll is dead would have gotten a defibrillator shock at Gary Clark Jr.’s Troubadour set Tuesday.

The two-hour show revalidated the idea that an inspired guitar, bass and drums combo on a small stage can still be more overpowering live than pummeling dance beats and a hundred-foot LED wall. The 28-year-old Austin, Texas, singer-guitarist is perhaps the most exciting blues-based instrumentalist to emerge since Jack White. His sound culls from a century of American guitar music, performed with a panache that’s wholly contemporary.

His impressive set, the first of a three-night, sold-out stand at the Troubadour, was full of ad-libbed numbers off his recent major label debut album “Blak and Blu.” The album was produced by Rob Cavallo and Mike Elizondo, whose collective credits span from Green Day to Fiona Apple to Dr. Dre. Blues-rock purists have grumbled about its smooth-sanded structures and occasional nods to dorm-chillin’ college rock. It’s an album that wants to compete in the pop arena. Given the Troubadour crowd’s reactions, it very well could.

To do that, guitar rock’s latest savior may need to trim the demanding sets for which he is becoming famous. Tuesday’s set showed his unimpeachable six-string skills, but in the course of saving an old genre (blues-rock) he may have shortchanged the new one (pop music) he’s pushing for. 

Clark Jr. is an interesting sort of rock star — sexy as hell (his tall, lanky frame and hipster-mystic aesthetic could fill entire issues of GQ) and an absolute warlock on his instrument, but still with a hint of the shy teenager who turned to guitar from loneliness.

On stage Tuesday he sang with a honeysuckle falsetto or an overdriven growl, but he definitely looked most comfortable facing the side of the stage, tailgunning long solos. When he dug into those feedback-blasted improvised passages, they felt more like rallying cries for true musicianship than just guitar solos.

The rockabilly vamp of “Travis County” is based on some of the oldest ideas in rock guitar, but Clark played them with the vigor and curiosity of the modern sample-trawling generation. The droning wails of “When My Train Pulls In” split the difference between the doom of Howlin’ Wolf and the nod of outsider psychedelia. That tune is kind of an implicit kiss-off to his beloved but insular Austin scene — “It’s driving me out of my mind ... I’ll catch the next train and move on down the line” – and in the thick of Tuesday’s crowd, it sounded like he’d arrived at his next stop.

It’s hard to remember a recent artist whose technical ability was commensurately met with music-industry hype. Clark is dating the Australian model Nicole Trunfio, but there were dozens of other lissome aspirants ready to take her place.

It’s hard to blame them. Clark is the kind of artist you want to champion – a workaholic craftsman who can still start electrical fires with his stage presence. He gets a lot of too-obvious Hendrix comparisons (being an African American male guitar hero with a hippie streak). Hendrix was obsessed with deconstructing his instrument to move it forward, but at the Troubadour, Clark Jr. seemed to want to reassert its classic, almost mythic power across generations of American music.

On Tuesday he reimagined his Stax-sweet “Ain’t Messin ’Round,” trading harmonized fuzz for the record version’s incandescent horns. His bedroom-eyes R&B burner “Please Come Home” felt more like D’Angelo than anything first cut to 78 rpm. It’s no accident that latter song was a highlight – open space and clear songwriting came as a welcome refresher from the pyrotechnics. One’s jaw can only drop so far, after all.

Maybe today’s whiplash singles-and-remix culture is to blame, but after two hours of bowing at the altar of his instrumental prowess, one left reminded that there’s something to be said for brevity onstage. Bruce Springsteen gets to play for three hours because he has 30 hits. Clark is a veteran musician, but in the pop arena, he’s just beginning to earn his stripes.

There’s a century-long tradition of long instrumental conversations in the music Clark loves. But long-form jams work best in the context of collaboration and trading solos. Tuesday’s set was a star-making showcase tied to a radio-savvy album. He’d have been better off leaving an audience wanting one more volley of fretboard sweat than feeling as if they’d had one too many.

Even excepting the confusing stretch where his sideman’s amp went out and the band truly noodled for a good 10 minutes, the night proved fully convincing but kind of exhausting by the end. Jack White is every bit the omnivorous blues hound that Clark is, but he’s also a garage-rock fiend where two-minute tunes rule.

The best arguments for rock and pop are fast, loud and die young. Gary Clark Jr. is a shaman of the old virtues; now he just has to compete with the newer ones.

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