Gary Clark Jr. : All Skills, No Frills

Photo Credit: Ben Kaye

Viewers who tuned into Saturday Night Live over Presidents’ Day weekend saw Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression, guest host Don Cheadle’s monologue and a sketch about a talking dessert cake pleading to be euthanized. After that, they watched the week’s musical guest, Gary Clark Jr. perform his new song “Pearl Cadillac.”

Many were no doubt asking themselves the same question: Who does this guy remind me of?

The tune – a mid-tempo love song that Clark sang in falsetto – was almost eerily reminiscent (right down to the title) of the late Prince. Then, the blistering, bluesy guitar solo which Clark breaks into made it impossible not the think of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana or any number of other guitar gods. The overall package probably even had a few viewers in mind of Lenny Kravitz.

However, the performance, even coupled with his second song of the night (the title track from his new album This Land) offer up only a small taste of what Clark, 35, has come to offer listeners in his relatively short career. Having proven himself equally adept at pure blues, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, soul, and even touching upon a bit of hip hop…all on top of being hailed as possibly the greatest guitarist of his generation.

It might be tempting to dismiss Clark as a throwback artist: the hat which he wore during that first SNL segment displayed a peace sign, a woefully dated symbol that went out with, well, peace. And while the commercial release of live albums is virtually unheard of in an age of countless fan-shot concert videos on YouTube, Clark has issued two such discs since 2014.

One might also imagine that with the wide range of musical styles which Clark switches between, he risks creating a division among listeners. However, the upward projection of his success suggests the artist has little trouble getting audiences on the same page. His last album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim (2015) went Top Ten in the U.S., and this March, Clark headlines three nights at New York City’s Beacon Theater, a relatively upscale venue that holds nearly 3,000 people.

This Land will unquestionably win Clark an even bigger audience, though he’s by no means taken to the soft-peddle: the title track, which opens the album, is a blistering view of race relations in Trump’s America that’s as painfully frank as any current hip-hop cut. The very modern-sounding “Don’t Wait ‘til Tomorrow” has clear promise as a major radio hit, while Clark very much remains faithful to his roots on title-says-it-all tracks like “Low Down Rolling Stone” and “Dirty Dishes Blues.”

Another characteristic that differentiates Clark from any of the artists he might resemble musically – and arguably any major label artist today – is what seems to be his little regard for image, as he typically appears wearing very simple clothes and a variety of generally nondescript hats. In an era when album artwork (despite the vinyl resurgence) is at best an afterthought and with even MTV long abandoning music videos, Clark may well represent a new breed of artist who forgo almost any sort of window dressing, leaving just the music to stand or fall on its own.

It’s maybe a bit ironic that he cites Michael Jackson as his earliest influence, whom Clark at age four witnessed live in concert. Also according to the bio on his official website, Austin, Texas native Clark first picked up a guitar in middle school, played local clubs through his teens, and after building a solid reputation released his debut album Worry No More at age 17 in 2001.

Clark has said it’s that anchor to his own personal roots which truly drives him. “Of course you’re going to want to make records that connect with people, and you have to be sensitive and aware of that,” Clark told Ebony magazine in 2015. “But at the end of the day, I play music for that feeling I got when I first started playing in the garage.”

Written by Richard John Cummins

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