new music: gary clark jr cements his place as one of the greatest living modern guitarists on ‘gary clark jr. live’ #soundcheck

September 29, 2014

Shortly before he died, I got to meet the jazz pianist Boyd Lee Dunlop. A mutual friend introduced us. As the three of us sat down at the piano in the nursing home cafeteria, we took turns at the piano. I’d never define myself as a pianist, and here I am with an unsung jazz legend asking me to play something. I started playing “Gymnopedie No. 1” because it’s one of the only piano pieces I can play from memory, and Boyd Lee interrupted me. “Don’t play me a song, kid. Play the piano.” Before that, I’d never really considered the difference between playing an instrument, and using that instrument to play a song. Listening to the latest from modern guitar god Gary Clark Jr., Gary Clark Jr. Live, that moment with Boyd Lee is all I can think about. Gary Clark Jr. isn’t playing a song, kid. He plays the guitar. It’s meta musicianship. The songs, even the notes, are almost irrelevant. Without any exaggeration or hype, this is some of the best guitar work I’ve ever heard.

Words by Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor

Clark opens the set with his rendition of blues standard “Catfish Blues.” There’s a lot of history in that choice: a live favorite of Hendrix, it’s also the song that gave the Rolling Stones their name, by way of Muddy Waters’ famous rendition. An 8 minute epic that traces the history of blues from unaccompanied guitar to a full band stomp finally exploding in a noisy guitar solo straight out of late 80’s indie rock (J Mascis would be proud). This is guitar godhood that gracefully skips over the metal shredders and prog virtuosos and focuses less on the electric guitar’s classical pretensions and more on its emotional evocativeness. In short: fuck technique, this is about feeling.

The band runs through much of the set of Gary Clark Jr.’s breakthrough LP Blak and Blu. For an artist with a short discography, a live album can sometimes be an unnecessary space filler in between studio albums. “Here are all the songs on my last album played slightly worse and slightly faster!” But the band wisely focuses on how the songs evolve on stage. “Next Door Neighbor Blues” evolves from lofi country blues to a full on rock theatrics. When he hits the title track, “Blak and Blu” is stripped of its pop production and becomes an unexpectedly heartbreaking ballad featuring nothing but Clark’s guitar and voice and the periodic accent from drummer Johnny Radelat. There’s a fantastic moment when he hits the chorus and the audience realizes what song he’s playing. It’s a moment of catharsis and understanding and enthusiastic support. For so many artists extending their big single into a 9 minute solo as he does with “Bright Lights” would be masturbatory. Here it’s revelatory. Throughout Gary Clark Jr. Live, Clark and company manage the nearly impossible feat of making you feel like you’re at the concert, mouth agape at the next level shit you’re hearing.

The album is out now, and streaming via The New York Times.