When you think of music’s greatest guitarists, there are a few names that tend to come up: Jimi Hendrix. Stevie Ray Vaughn. B.B. King. But who are the axe-bearers of today’s generation that can shred a dirty solo or strum out a riff that simply sparkles? Gary Clark, Jr. just may be the answer.
The Austin native performed Saturday night on day 10 of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, steeping Nathan Philips Square in the Texas blues tradition. But his sound isn’t just limited to southern slides and distorted guitar. His influences range from hip-hop to country, and in 2014 he won a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance. Over the past few years Clark has become a prominent figure across genres, playing alongside the likes of The Rolling Stones, Sheryl Crow and John Mayer to name a few; his performance Saturday night showed Toronto why he’s garnered so much attention.
A windy downpour rattled and shook the Toronto Star Main stage tent. It was a full house—the rows of chairs were all filled, and audience members struggled to find a good place to stand at the back. There were even a few fans getting drenched outside, anticipating the rhythm and blues extraordinaire. When the lights dimmed, Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” blared through the speakers as the 3-piece took the stage. Clark strapped on the cherry-bodied Gibson SG and proceeded to strum out a glittering medley of chords. A grimy augmented tone crackled through before he began the pulse of his breakthrough hit “Bright Lights.”
Watching the band perform was like peeking into the basement window of a local garage band. The set up was simple: the drums in the center-back, bass beside the hi-hat, and Clark on the opposite side closer to the monitors. A quaint Fender Vibro-King amp stood at the back of the stage. Clark altered his own pedals, and tuned his guitars if the notes just were just a tad out of key. This stripped-down minimalism was never a shortcoming, though. Rather, it showed the audience that Clark’s music isn’t about pitch-perfect ornamentations or polished layers.
What the set up really showcased was Clark’s versatile playing and repertoire. He could go from Chuck Berry-esque riffing in “Travis County” to a tender, clean 6-string strum on tunes with a vibe straight from Motown Records. He could make the fuzzy noise in “Numb” ooze from his Telecaster like a thick, sonic sludge, then switch out for a Jazzmaster to finger pick his southern-stylized tune “Next Door Neighbor Blues.” His voice was just as flexible. From the deep, effortless runs in “When My Train Pulls In” to the sweet, soaring falsettos in “Please Come Home” that channeled the likes of Marvin Gaye, Clark belted out the full spectrum of America’s musical past and beyond with a contemporary flare. He did make sure the audience knew where his main inspirations draws from, though. “Someone at the front asked if we could play some Memphis Blues,” he said as the crowd erupted with the punch line: “I’m from Texas, sorry dude.”
But of course, it was Clark’s solo work that mesmerized the audience. From distorted wails to gentle hammer-ons, Clark’s playing provides an emotional narrative, at points speaking louder than the words. During B.B. King’s “3 O’Clock Blues,” Clark whipped the guitar chord before breaking into one of the most gripping solos of the night sprinkled with quick plucking and sensual, stretched out bends, his body shaking with every note. It wasn’t all speed and licks, either. His rests were just as critical to his expression, a true test of feel for any guitarist. He knew how to sync with the atmosphere and the band in order to piece together an improvisation that went beyond scale structure and theoretical ponderings.
Clark said it best during “The Healing,” one of the three encore songs he played to an explosive crowd. Alone on stage, Clark drawled with a honey-sweet tone: “This is something you can’t touch; this is something you feel.” Closing his performance with Albert Collin’s blues classic “If Trouble Was Money,” Clark recognized the masters that came before him while paving a new space for the sounds of Texas blues in the 21st century. With a final strum, Clark took off into the blustering night, but it was the musical storm he conjured up inside the tent that will be remembered.