“You’re gonna know my name by the end of the night” Gary Clark Jr. once wrote after an unsuccessful attempt to make it in New York early in his career. In the six years since Gary Clark Jr. first wowed audiences at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, he’s made good on his word show after show, and amassed a passionate fan base among in the process. Clark has proven himself to be one of the most relentless touring forces around, and after countless electrifying sets around the world, this generation’s resident “savior of blues” opted to let his backing band take a break and give his fans an opportunity to see him in a whole new light by embarking on a string of solo shows, which wrapped up with an extraordinary appearance at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall.
Taking the stage shortly after 8 o’clock, Clark took a seat center stage, armed with just an amplifier, a guitar, and a microphone, and the theater erupted in applause – coming close to a standing ovation before a note had been played. From the first finger-picked opening, Clark brought an intimacy to the enormous hall that made it feel more like the Austin clubs that he started out in than one of the most prestigious venues in the country, only with less rowdy drunk people. He kicked off the set with a string of blues standards including “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)” and “Catfish Blues” which has long been a standard of Clark’s sets, but which sounded even dirtier and more aggressive in this stripped down setting.
As he paused to take in the immensity of where he’d found himself, Clark noted that when he was growing up he had listened to live albums of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmy Reed recorded at Carnegie Hall before switching to an electric guitar and launching into a pair of Reed covers, “Shame, Shame, Shame,” which featured a howling harmonica solo, and “Honest I Do.” Moving into his own material was where the show hit its true stride though, as his smooth vocals found their finest home in the R&B grooves of “Things Are Changin’” and “Bright Lights.” His falsetto work on “Hold On,” off of last year’s +The Story of Sonny Boy Slim_, imbued the tune with the kind of sensuality soul music took from the blues decades ago and the heavy strumming of his guitar reverberated with the intensity of any orchestra throughout the hall. “Maybe they heard that one down the street,” he quipped afterwards.
Clark showed off some impressive skills with a slide on numbers like the delta-blues fire of “Next Door Neighbor Blues” and the more mournful “The Sky Is Crying,” and Clark’s own “Numb” settled into a dark and irresistible groove as Clark growled into the microphone. Each guitar break or impressive vocal feat was met with rapturous cheers from the audience, and when Clark returned to the stage for his too-brief encore it was minutes before he could get a word out. Closing things out with “Shake,” he encouraged the crowd to get on their feet and let loose as he unleashed a one-song demonstration of why he’s earned the reputation he has; filled with a fury of blues licks and determined, passionate vocals.
At one point, it may have been the Hendrix-esque fuzzed-out blues guitar rock theatrics that forced people to know Gary Clark Jr.’s name, but take all that away and his talent becomes even more notable. He proves not just that blues can still be relevant, but that it is still relevant; that its themes are universal and that sometimes good music is just good music. In Clark’s case, it’s damned good music.