Gary Clark jnr: Red hot and blue

By Scott Kara

Scott Kara meets blues rock guitarist Gary Clark jnr ahead of his support slot for the Chili Peppers next year.

Gary Clark Jnr was first influenced by greats Jimi Hendrix, Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vauhgan. Photo / Supplied
Gary Clark Jnr was first influenced by greats Jimi Hendrix, Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vauhgan. Photo / Supplied

Gary Clark jnr smiles shyly as he wanders on stage at the Annandale Hotel, a beautifully grimy and beaten-up rock 'n' roll venue in Sydney. He barely looks up at the excitable and expectant sold-out crowd as he picks up his guitar.

But when the tall, lean Texan, wearing a black singlet, a stylish, full-brimmed hat and a gold chain and cross around his neck, slings his gleaming red and gold Epiphone Casino over his shoulder, he becomes a man possessed.

The opening track - which is more like an improvised jam - stretches on for around 20 minutes, and it swirls and soars between soulful and scorching to heavy and psychedelic. Throughout the two-hour set, he looks every bit the hardened blues man as he pulls at the neck of his guitar and bends the strings.

At times you get the feeling even Clark and his band don't know what direction the song is going to head off in under a wave of feedback and fuzz. But then they can hammer out a snappy, almost flippant version of catchy songs like Don't Owe You a Thang, off last year's The Bright Lights EP, and The Life off debut album Blak and Blu, which is out tomorrow.

But what makes Clark unique is that while he can bellow with the best of them, he can also sing with a smooth soul croon akin to R&B eccentric D'Angelo.

Earlier in the day he sits on a bar stool in a side bar at the Annandale, where he is playing as part of a fleeting Australian promotional tour. There's a sound check going on through the wall and the random outbursts of noise almost drown out the quietly spoken and polite 28-year-old.

He talks about everything from growing up in Austin and getting his first Jimi Hendrix record (it was 1967's Are You Experienced) to another hero, Albert Collins, and what it's like living his dream after a steady rise in popularity over the last two years.

During that time he has been touted by everyone from Jay-Z (who asked him to play his Made in America Festival this year) to Willie Nelson ("I know him from my hometown," says Clark of the country music legend), he has collaborated with rap kingpin Nas and soul diva Alicia Keys, and played alongside greats like BB King and Eric Clapton.

And next year he tours as the support act for Red Hot Chili Peppers, who play Vector Arena on January 14 and 15, ahead of playing Australia's Big Day Out.

"It's a dream come true because I've sat around and thought, 'oh, I really want to do that', and by the grace of God or heaven I'm here doing it, and it's trippy for me," he says.

Clark released a number of "unofficial" records throughout the 2000s, which makes Blak and Blu his first proper album. And, he says, it does feel different having the backing of a record company and a team of people behind him.

"I've been doing things very independently, but now I'm all the way over here [in Australia] to promote my album which is kind of a trip for me. And I'm excited about it, I've got the opportunity to travel around the world and play my music to perfect strangers and give a lot of love."

He is all about sharing the love, and it doesn't matter whether it's with his fans or heroes like Hendrix and Collins.

He does his versions of Hendrix's Third Stone From the Sun and Collins' If You Love Me Like You Say on Black and Blu - and played one after the other, they are 10 minutes of blues-rock bliss.

"I'm not going to try and do it the way they did it, because those dudes are so bad-ass," he smiles. "But those songs are my starting point as a guitar player. Once I got my guitar, the first albums I got were Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and then Albert Collins, and it had Don't Lose Your Cool, If You Love Me Like You Say and songs like that on it.

"So those are very very important records and they are the start of everything. If I'd've heard anything else I may have been on a different path. So I'm just showing them guys [Hendrix and Collins] some love."

For a guy who primarily plays the blues, Blak and Blu is a diverse album taking in the lowdown dirty blues of Bright Lights, sweet and swooning ballads like Please Come Home, and then there's a meandering hip-hop-soul influence on the title track and The Life ("a song about getting into some trouble and then waking up in the morning and thinking, 'I should be doing something a lot more productive with my life"').

And sometimes it verges on heavy metal, like with Numb, a slow, sprawling song - think Hendrix meets a slowed-down Black Sabbath - that features Clark's trademark fuzz effect inspired by "tapping into the vibe" on Hendrix's Band of Gypsys album from 1970.

He remembers with a laugh how the veteran guitar players he grew up playing with would tell him that effects pedals were not necessary.

"But they're soooo much fun," grins Clark. "I would sit around at my house and make noise and I got hooked. And I'm just a music lover. I just like it if it strikes a chord and resonates and if it moves me, in what ever genre. I'm a laid-back kind of dude, but when something rowdy comes on, I dig it."

Who: Gary Clark jnr.
What: Guitar hero and modern-day blues rock and soul man.
Debut album: Blak & Blu, out tomorrow.
Where and when: Supporting Red Hot Chili Peppers, January 14 and 15, Vector Arena.

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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