The Washington Post

Gary Clark Jr. makes his own blues path at Red Palace


Gary Clark Jr., shown in New York, has sold out many shows on his tour. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

Hailed by his fans as the new king of blues and the heir to legends such as Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton, Gary Clark Jr. is widely predicted to restore the genre to mainstream popularity. If his Saturday night show at Red Palace was any indication, though, the Austin native made it clear he’ll be taking the blues in a direction all his own.

In a subtly cool role-reversal, Clark, 27, took the stage solo to provide the entrance music for his band. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, he approached the audience with humility. Despite his recent surge in popularity, Clark was ready to earn its respect.

But this crowd was an easy get. The show, like many on this tour, sold out weeks in advance, with offers of $75 from those seeking tickets on Craigslist.

Halfway through the robust two-hour set, amid near constant ovation, an audience member quipped, “You’re doing a really great job!”

“I’m tryin’, man,” Clark replied in earnest, wiping the sweat from his brow.

The beginning of Clark’s set was largely his material. The guitar-heavy “When My Train Pulls In” highlighted his improvisation skills, while the old-school boogie “Don’t Owe You a Thing” showed the breadth of his repertoire. But it was his third song, “Please Come Home,” sung entirely in falsetto like a soulful lullaby, that really raised hairs. For all the buzz surrounding his guitar, there may be even more gold in his pipes.

At times, it’s hard to know where to focus. You can stare at his fingers tickling the guitar until they blur, watch him drop to his knees during a solo or get lost in his bewitching expression: an eyes-closed grimace so stiff that it looks as though he’s weathering a thousand bee stings.

Covers are a staple of any blues repertoire, but every track Clark touched felt born again. During a rendition of “If You Love Me Like You Say,” he scratched wildly at his guitar strings to make them sound like turntables.

Such a nod to hip-hop could have been unsettling for the veteran blues fans in the house, of which there were many, but the crowd hung on his every stroke: singing, kissing, whooping, bumping, grinding, tearing and yee-hawing. If the blues exists to convey emotion, this was feeling in its most candid form.

For the encore, he chose Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up,” a 1970s jam about following your dreams and sticking to your guns. For a guy ushering blues into the 21st century, it was a fitting choice.

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