Gary Clark Jr. – Blak and Blu
by Dave Keneston
One of my favorite releases from the last few years, Blak and Blu has everything a fan of blues influenced music could want. From hard driving blues rock, to R&B and hip hop, Gary Clark Jr. gives all of his inclinations a turn at the plate. The guitar nerds at The Gear Page can’t seem to figure out if he’s the next Hendrixesque guitar god or just a mediocre bar level player. What they’ve missed is he’s neither. Clark Jr. is a MUSICIAN. He’s not trying to be a guitar god, he’s making the music he wants and sometimes that includes a three-minute, fuzzed out guitar solo. At times it means focusing on writing captivating hooks and letting his exquisite voice do the work. Sometimes it even means the blending of hip hop with R&B and not having a single guitar solo.
The album begins with “Ain’t Messin ‘Round,” an energetic song with a super horn hook and a catchy chorus. Gary provides a tease of his magnificent falsetto, one that he showcases later in the album. A nice rhythmic solo breaks up the tune, followed by an organ that subtly builds into the chorus outro. Clearly this was a radio single and not the meatiest of compositions on the album, but an excellent way to kick things off.
“When My Train Pulls In” is up next and Clark Jr. goes full crushing blues on this one. It has a stellar minor key progression which Gary seasons with a pounding riff on the one chord to avoid staleness. This is where Gary does his best guitar work on the entire album. The leads are heart wrenching and gritty, yet he avoids using clichéd blues licks as he seamlessly imparts his own style. The ending is the epitome of a brilliant guitar solo with skillful wah wah use and fantastic note selections.
“Bright Lights” is the first song I had ever heard by Gary Clark Jr. and it instantly hooked me. The sense of urgency is palpable, in this homage to Jimmy Reed. The stomping rhythm and declarative lyric “You gonna know my name by end of the night,” coupled with an excellent guitar tone and fantastic use of dynamics make this one of the best tunes on the album. He exudes the confidence and swagger of someone ready to take over the music world. Clark Jr. is so tasteful, he limits wankery to a minimum and consistently hits “gut” notes that induce guitar face in each listener without fail.
“Travis County” and “The Life” are the weakest compositions on the album with Travis being a modern day, raved up attempt at a Chuck Berry number and “The Life” being a somewhat hackneyed, I party too much regret song.
The title track is where Clark Jr. starts to expose some of his R&B/soul tastes and makes me nostalgic for my late 90’s obsession with Maxwell. The man is not afraid to show his vulnerability and you have to respect that. Smooth vocals with a laid back beat is a perfect description of this piece.
The second half of the album begins with “Glitter Ain’t Gold (Jumpin for Nothing)” and it’s an in your face powerful rocker. Fuckin’ A, it has a sweet groove and an anthemic chorus. Listening to this jam in the car turned up loud as hell, is clearly the appropriate means of ingestion. Again, the guitar solo is rhythmic and apropos of the song. He has this uncanny sense of how to create quality arrangements and he never steps over the threshold into self-satisfying guitar masturbation land.
“Numb” is up next and it’s a slow, sludgy blues. The tune employs an often used theme in blues music in which a man just can’t take it anymore in his tumultuous relationship. It’s a man’s cry, oozing with frustration and disbelief. Once again Gary composes a satisfying groove and accents the composition with another fuzz laden guitar lead. It’s unquestionably the heaviest number on the album, and certainly one of the better tracks as well.
He must have listened to a lot of Prince when he wrote “You Saved Me,” because the influence is all over it. From the guitar work to the drum beat and vocal inflections, this is Prince with a bit of Texas strut and it’s damn good.
“Things Are Changing” is where Gary lets his Hendrix/Mayfield influence come through with clean rhythm work with little embellishments of hammer ons and pull offs, clearly emanating from Jimi and his predecessors. This is another blend of rock and R&B, with a smooth drum and bass groove complimenting Gary’s silky voice. This is that chill jam on a hookup mix that you make for a girl who you just started seeing.
A perfect tune for the festival crowd, the Hendrix/Little Johnny Taylor cover “Third Stone From the Sun/If You Love me Like You Say” is a vehicle to display his versatility. A nine minute droning jam, interspersed with funky blues is another example of how this artist is at home in nearly any situation. Whether it’s a juke joint outside of Austin, an upscale club in New York City, or on a stage in front of thousands of spinning hippies, he fits in superbly.
“Please Come Home” is track nine on the album and it’s a genre blending masterpiece. It netted him a Grammy for best traditional R&B performance in 2014. If Smokey Robinson and Buddy Guy had co-written a song, this would be it. A sexy feel and slick guitar work characterize this R&B/soul number. Clark Jr. shows off his world class falsetto here and holy shit, is it tremendous! This performance is a perfect example of why this guy is what they would call a “Five Tool Player” in Baseball. Stunning Voice: check. Guitar Chops: check. Outstanding Dynamics: check. Exceptional Melodies: check. Rockstar Look: check. The man has all the tools in his bag and he knows how to use them.
The album wraps up with Gary taking it back to his blues roots with “Next Door Neighbor Blues.” An acoustic stomper with slide work evoking images of Robert Johnson, it’s a fitting album ender to remind everyone where this whole thing started.
Overall, an excellent album of top notch blues rock and some beautiful rhythm and blues, with only a couple of skip worthy compositions.
“Please Come Home”
“When My Train Pulls In”
“You Saved Me”