Gary Clark Jr. discusses transcending the blues
It’s been at least four years since Gary Clark Jr. was widely hailed as “the future of the blues.” But his fans and collaborators — who range from Beyoncé, Eric Clapton and Foo Fighters to Bonnie Raitt, Chris Stapleton and rapper Talib Kweli — represent a significantly broader musical spectrum. And that suits this acclaimed Texas guitar dynamo, singer, songwriter and band leader just fine.
“When I was really young, I thought I’d be a major pop star, like Michael Jackson. That’s what I thought I wanted,” said Clark, 32, who performs Tuesday and Wednesday at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (sold out) and WednesdayWhere: Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter IslandTickets: $40 (plus service charge); all tickets are unreserved, standing-room-only Phone: (800) 745-3000Online: ticketmaster.com
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (sold out) and Wednesday
Where: Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island
Tickets: $40 (plus service charge); all tickets are unreserved, standing-room-only
Phone: (800) 745-3000
“But when I started to play guitar and hang around blues clubs, I started to change. The people I was surrounded by, and influenced by, were from all genres of music. So I was like, ‘I want to play music, and fit in everywhere, with different people’ — just be that guy.
“So I kind of set my sights on that. Without that mentality, I couldn’t share the stage with Willie Nelson, Citizen Cope, Alicia Keys, the Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran, John Mayer and all the rest. It’s been this crazy spectrum of artists I’ve worked with. But I always want to be part of it and it’s a little surreal that I have.”
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be bigger and sell a bunch more records. But, for right now, my reality is just what I want it to be and I’m very fortunate to be in this position.”
A native of Austin, Clark was 12 when he started his love affair with the guitar. He was soon being mentored by Clifford Antone, Austin’s leading blues promoter, and Jimmie Vaughan, whose guitar-playing brother Stevie was one of Clark’s early inspirations.
In a 1985 Union-Tribune interview, Stevie Ray Vaughan said: “I do this stuff to be more than a `gunslinger. That `fastest-guitarist-in-the-West’ syndrome happens no matter what I do. That can be fine if you have fun with it, but it gets to be old. I did that 15 years ago. Sometimes you can do less by playing a lot at once, but then you don’t have to play a lot all the time. Sometimes one note is all you need. B.B. King showed me that. We were playing in Austin, and I had the pleasure of sitting in with him. He played rhythm guitar for me for four songs that I played lead on. Then he stood up and played one note, and I died. It was the best note I’ve heard in years!”
Clark shared concert stages with King, who died last year at the age of 89. As he matures as a musician, how has Clark’s approach to the guitar evolved? How does he decide which notes to play and which to leave out?”
“Wow,” he said, before pausing for thought. “That’s a great question. My approach to guitar playing in the last year and a half definitely has changed, because I’ve had a little less time to (practice) since my boy was born. So I’ve been a little bit lazy on it. But when thinking about it, I went in the studio with Jacob Sciba, who produced my last record, and we were talking about making records. He said: ‘If you can just sing the song, and play it on guitar and piano, and it makes you feel that certain way, you’ve done your job.’
“So I’m trying to strip it down and not just get excited about it being a guitar solo, but to have every note and instrument have its place. There’s a time for slashing and roaring in a live setting, or on a record. But there’s a time and place for everything. I can’t help it! I love playing lead guitar and a bunch of notes, all at once, if I’m feeling good. I’m in the middle of trying to figure out the best way for me to go. I’m always trying to switch it up now; that’s part of the fun of playing guitar.”
Much like his artistic heroes before him, the Grammy Award-winning Clark has become a gateway for young fans to learn more about the blues. The vibrant style is the foundation for many styles of American music, from rock to hip-hop, and he is perhaps its most visible young champion.
“I definitely feel a sense of responsibility,” Clark said, speaking from a recent tour stop in Detroit. “I was a kid when Clifford Antone took me under his wing. He introduced me to all the greats — Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins — man, the list goes on and on! Clifford would always say, ‘You’re the kid who needs to help this music keep going, and influence people.’
“Other people have said that to me. Blues is something I always wanted to be a part of and incorporate my own thing into. At the end of the day, there’s no way I could re-create what these great guys did. I just do my thing, tip my hat to them, and play my music.”
Clark played at Petco Park last year when he opened for the Rolling Stones and joined the fabled English band for a rousing version of the Stones’ classic, “Bitch.”
He and his band are now touring in support of his fifth album, 2015’s superb “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim.” Its title alludes to his nicknames as a kid and to blues pioneers Sonny Boy Williamson and Sunnyland Slim.
Clark’s third release for Warner Bros. Records, it’s his most fully realized work to date. While blues remains the cornerstone of his work, he expertly draws from hip-hop, funk, pop, rockabilly and more.
Is this because, while he embraces and reveres the blues and its traditions, he doesn’t want to be boxed in by those traditions?
“I don’t want to be boxed in,” Clark affirmed.
“But it’s not even about that. ... I listen to all sorts of things that I am influenced by, so I automatically to go in different zones. Miles Davis is a big inspiration. So is (John) Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Ravi Shankar — I love that sound! — Bob Marley & The Wailers, Peter Tosh, hip-hop producers like DJ Premier, Dr. Dre, Parliament-Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder playing keys — Stevie Wonder playing anything, really!
“I love to experiment. I’ve always been a ‘why not?’ person. I always reach to the limit. ‘What’s next?’ ‘How far can I go?’ I think I have a long way to go. So not being boxed in is my calling, you know?”