Summer’s waning. Those special couple months of outdoor Minnesota music are sadly approaching an end. But. not. quite. yet. Saturday night was glorious as patrons streamed onto the Surly Brewing Festival Grounds. Sweatshirts slung over shoulders; matched with shorts, the last concession to the change of seasons. Surly is a great venue. Big stage. Huge sound. Craft beer and a perimeter lined with savory food trucks. The summer line up has been stellar. Gary Clark, Jr was a worthy addition to the firmament.
7pm saw Austin power trio Think No Think hit the stage. Drawing on early metal and psychedelia the band was loud, brash and extremely talented. Front man Johnny Dowey is a strong guitar player blasting away through his Orange amplifier. He couples a distinctive voice and persona which forces itself upon your attention. A short, hard rock set seems a perfect tone setter for the big guy.
I am willing to hazard a guess that these three guys traded licks with Clark back in Austin long before they hit the road together. The blues world, from which Clark emerged, has some significant differences from its cousin rock and roll. Buddy Guy said: “The Blues is just a hand me down thing”. Experienced practitioners mentor those coming up behind them. It doesn’t really matter whether they are expressing themselves through a different genre. For Think No Think the Surly Festival Stage is the big time. It was a tremendous opportunity courtesy of Clark. They were clearly appreciative and ready for the limelight.
Gary Clark, Jr is an important musician. Important, in particular, to music in the United States. It’s not just that he’s a phenom. It’s more that he’s a torchbearer for the music which is the root for so many styles around the world: R&B, soul, gospel, funk. Like Muddy Waters said: “The blues had a baby. And they named it rock n roll.”
Traditional blues remain a huge draw around the world, particularly in Europe where citizens have maintained a fascination since the end of WWII. Domestically blues’ popularity has ebbed and flowed. Certainly, there are those hitting the big time. Artists like Jack White, the Black Keys or Rival Sons (whose Electric Man is now the theme for Mountain Dew), are dyed-in- the-wool blues men, all.
Yet for some reason younger generations don’t clearly make that connection. It was the same 50 years ago when Zepplin and The Stones staged the British Invasion. We thought we were hearing hard rock. They thought they were playing the blues. So Clark’s importance is that he might just be the guy that helps his legions of fans make the connection. He may lead a resurgence of this most dynamic, performance based style of making music.
That lanky Texan with the duster hat and racks of guitars is, first and foremost, a musician. His musical curiosity is as wide as those high Texas plains. Saturday was musical travelogue of the best sort. The styles, influences and competence in execution was simply breath taking. Late in the show, I asked a nearby fan (who seemed reluctant to be named in print) what her favorite song of the night was . Diane identified an unreleased number “because she could hear Prince all over it.” I was going more old school, hearing echos of Marvin Gaye or Al Green. But the point was the same, Clark moves seamlessly from growl to vulnerable falsetto and is never reluctant to pursue a sound that moves him.
The show opened with the heavy, ponderous swampy Catfish Blues, replete with rattlesnake percussion. He veered quickly up river with Ain’t Messin’ Around, brimming with Memphis soul and Muscle Shoals horns. Both tunes featured incendiary fretwork and demonstrated that Clark viewed his axe as a blank canvas. No rules about where to find sounds, whether on the head stock, by banging, knocking or bending. Clearly, there is far more than six strings and a neck. While the crowd shuffled to the former, there was a pronounced female shimmy on the latter. When was the last time you were in an audience and women were shimmying?
Travis County hit the audience with a rockabilly, hard driving Chuck Berry guitar rip. Distinctive and tight. Wham, bam, thank you Ma’am before the train pulled into Chicago. Next Door Neighbor Blues was a classic shuffle. Big power, big sound with a wicked slide solo. What made the performance on this one distinctive is that rather than being a bit of tail-dragger, which is the hallmark of the Windy City, Clark had the band playing out on the front edge of the wave. It lent the song a driving pace and sense of urgency.
When My Train Pulls In was literally a show stopper. Penned with friend Gil Scott-Herron, it opened with a drifting calypso tinged exploration of the instrument which slowly built into a powerful expression of longing. This is Clark going where his muse takes him. A nod here, a call there to warn the band where he is headed. The band becomes an ornate frame. The subject is one man with a guitar, transcendent. A page right out of the book of the great blues masters.
The back half of the show continued with an easy pace between songs. It wasn’t slow by any means. More like patient and confident. The band would reload and launch on a new stylistic trajectory. This segment included a three song block of new material which,like the rest of show, never stayed long in a particular idiom. All were well received although to me they seemed not as fully developed. But that’s not a knock. Blues music demands expression and creativity each and every night. How can a song find all its nuances and be not only new, but better, every night? Only with time.
The remainder of the show drove toward the end like a runaway train. Some simple Delta style picking accelerates and morphs into the song that broke him into the mainstream, You Don’t Owe Me A Thang. Lead lines are passed around the stage and every member has a chance to shine. I was struck by the idea of how special musicians who opt to follow a star rather than drive their own bands really are. Music first, ego second. The train is smokin’ down the track as the song hits full tilt boogie. The entire crowd is jumping.
A normal talent would leave the main set on something like that one. Not Gary Clark, Jr. Pause for a breath and reload. A soft Hammond B3 line begins to build. As the band drops in there is a sense of anticipation, of getting ready for the storm to break. When it does, the opening notes of the great Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights, Big City flash out like a bolt of lightning. Where the original has some strut and bounce, this version demands, it begs, it threatens. Clark adds his personal tag to the chorus: “You’re gonna know my name by the end a the night!” For anyone who walked in new to this dude, this was truth.
The encore began with a beautiful solo little ditty titled Kiss and Tell. When the band returned he strapped on a Gibson Flying V and rolled the band into the 1962 classic Baby What Can I Do To Change Your Mind. When I closed my eyes it was as though the spirit of the late great Albert King had been invoked. It may take another 30 years and uncounted bowls of pipe tobacco to realize Kings signature growl. But that brittle, flinty guitar tone chiming through a vintage Fender amp was spot on.
The tune that closed the encore began with psychedelic meandering about the instrument until The Beatles’ Come Together emerged from the mist. This version was heavy, ponderous and powerful. We all knew the words; Clark found no need to exhort us to join him. Everyone leaped at the chance, knowing that this night was about to end. We only wished it could go beyond the roughly 90 minutes he gave us. We would have stayed there for hours.
On the long walk back to the car I found myself imagining a young Gary Clark, Jr carrying his first guitar down to Antone’s in Austin on open jam nights. Hoping to get picked. With some new licks in his pocket and hoping to steal a couple more. The likes of Jimmie Vaughn, Chris Layton, Sarah Brown and Billy Gibbons ready to lend a hand. That kid’s record collection must have been a marvel. Wearing out grooves suggested to him by those masters. Sounds that spanned genres and styles. Sounds other kids would never hear. But that’s what has brought Clark to this moment. At some point the sponge became the oracle. And we’re all the richer for it.