Every few years, someone, be it the White Stripes or the Black Keys, finds a way to kick the blues further into the future. And between the instrumental chops, the mellifluous hook-ready vocals, and rakish handsomeness, it’s easy to understand why Gary Clark Jr. might be next in line to do just that. But sitting in the lobby of a Sheraton in Manhattan’s Chinatown, nursing a Starbucks espresso, eyes covered by sunglasses, and speaking in a near whisper, his presence doesn’t exactly scream iconoclast.
So how did he get here? With some hometown help. In his early teens, Clark, now 27, fell into his native Austin, Texas’ blues scene by joining open jams at small clubs. There, his flourishing skills (“I would practice for hours and hours and hours — as much as I could”) got him his first big break: the attention of impresario Clifford Antone, owner of the revered namesake venue and patron of the city’s ascendant bluesmen. Soon, Clark was gigging with 12-bar legends like Jimmie Vaughan (Stevie Ray’s older bro).
Those connections put him on the radar of the organizers of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. His subsequent performance — in front of 20,000 people in Chicago’s Toyota Park stadium at a concert designed to deify six-stringers — was his creation-myth moment. “It was the biggest crowd I’ve ever played,” remembers Clark. “And I look over and Clapton’s onstage [watching]. It was a surreal, inspiring, out-of-body thing. Like, yeah, I should be doing this for a living.”
In the wave of attention that followed, Clark landed a record deal with Warner Bros., which released his recent The Bright Lights EP. Over four tracks, Clark flexes impressive cross-demographic muscle, ranging from distortion-saturated stomp to delicate neo-soul. “When I was out playing [in Austin], I was really sticking to the blues standards,” Clark says, explaining his particular sound. “But I’d go home and play along to Curtis Mayfield or whatever was on the radio.”
The full-length follow-up is due early next year. When asked about his ambitions for it, and for the blues, Clark covers his face with his hands and flops on the couch. “I don’t know if it needs revival,” he says about the music he loves. “But it’d be nice to hear it more often — and it’s on me to go figure that out.”
Video by Matthew McClain