A Born Bluesman

Gary Clark Jr. does justice to his musical forebears and rocks radio-ready tunes

November 8, 2012

When Gary Clark Jr. tells an audience “you gonna know my name by the end of the night,” it’s not a warning; it’s practically a guarantee. The 28-year-old Austin, Texas, bluesman spent the summer making that line from his song “Bright Lights” his mantra. Clark played festival after festival, doing his best to ensure that there wasn’t a music lover on the planet who didn’t know his name.

The relentless touring was in preparation for “Blak and Blu,” Clark’s major-label debut released by Warner Bros. last month. Onstage, Clark has been heralded for his virtuoso blues guitar-playing and no-frills showmanship. On the record, Clark tries to prove he’s no one-trick pony. Beyond the guitar-heavy blues he’s known for, “Blak and Blu” shows Clark is just as capable of Otis Redding-style soul and hip-hop-flavored pop.

But let’s say you didn’t get out to a festival this summer and don’t know Gary Clark Jr. from former Washington Redskins receiver Gary Clark (no, they’re not related). Here are a few reasons you should get used to hearing his name:

Blues Roots

Clark has been playing guitar since he was 12, and his pedigree speaks for itself. His first performance at an Austin club — when he was 14 — came at the request of Clifford Antone, owner of Antone’s, the legendary Austin venue that helped launch Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career. As Clark started to define his sound, Vaughan’s brother, Jimmie Vaughan, took him under his wing as a mentor. By the time Clark turned 18, he’d become such a star around town that Austin’s mayor had honored him by naming May 3, 2001, Gary Clark Jr. Day.

The Black Keys Effect

If it wasn’t for the Black Keys, the current torchbearers of blues rock, Clark might not be on the verge of mainstream success. The Ohio-bred rock revivalists opened the door for someone like Clark to break through. It’s not fair to say Clark sounds like the Black Keys just because both play modern, radio-ready blues rock. But if the Keys weren’t headlining festivals and selling out arenas, Clark might still be stuck gigging in Austin.

Respecting the Past

By covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun” on “Blak and Blu,” Clark is daring critics to compare him to the legendary guitarist who forever changed rock ’n’ roll. That he does the song justice — while putting his own, distorted spin on one of Hendrix’s most beloved psychedelic explorations — says he deserves such a nod.

9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Fri., 8 p.m., sold out; 202-265-0930. (U Street) 
Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
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