From the moment he came out of the Austin, Texas woodwork onto the national scene, guitarist Gary Clark Jr. has been consistently compared with Jimi Hendrix.  This is a daunting comparison, and probably reflects a nostalgic desire to return to the golden age of shredding in a post-guitar hero age.  But Clark Jr.’s performance to a sold-out crowd at the Royale Theater Sunday night proved that the Hendrix comparisons aren’t totally uncalled for, either.

Backed by a three-piece band consisting of drummer Johnny Radelat, bassist Johnny Bradley and guitarist King Zapata, Clark demonstrated that a live setting is the best way to showcase his bluesy sound.  On his debut album, Blak and Blue, Clark plays around with horns and R&B influences.  On stage, though, all of those extras fell away in favor of a grittier and rawer sound, as Clark’s piercing solos cut through everything else.

As Clark warmed up with the Blak and Blu’s opener, “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round,” the audience held its breath, waiting for him to display his magic on the fretboard.  When he unleashed his first solo in the middle of the song, the crowd roared its approval.  Indeed, the audience greeted every solo and explosive lick with cheers and fists in the air.  The modern king of blues was onstage, and they were very aware.

Clark burned through most of the favorites from Blak and Blue, including “Bright Lights,” “When My Train Pulls In” and the title track.  But he also played many non-album tracks, and in doing so broke the trend which many single-release artists engage in of playing virtually the entirety of their debut album, and nothing else.  Among these non-Blak and Blu songs were an excellent cover of Albert King’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” and the Hendrixesque “Catfish Blues.”  These songs and others allowed Clark to show off his versatility, as he interspersed his fiery blues numbers with several softer tunes, complete with fingerpicked arpeggios and a surprisingly sweet falsetto.  Of course, even these quieter numbers eventually accelerated into Clark’s soulful guitar wizardry.

Clark’s lyrics are the least striking feature of his music.  His songs are crowded with the lonely hearts, breakups and bankruptcy that for the blues’ lyrical backbone.  There’s little here thematically different from the lyrics of Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters, fifty years ago.  But this is a testament to the timelessness of the blues and not an indictment of Clark’s creativity:  For Clark, it doesn’t matter what he says so much as how he says it.

Given that his main tool of expression is one of the greatest pairs of hands in modern guitar, the results of his creativity are exciting to watch live.  So emotive was Clark’s playing Sunday night that there were times when he seemed to almost be in physical pain, as though he had to coax just the right tone from his guitar, or else be in unbearable agony.  Although he didn’t light his axe on fire or shred behind his back, Clark played with an intimacy that evoked Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn or any other legendary blues guitarist you’d care to name.  His performance was both a stirring testament to the timeless power of blues and rock and roll, and a vindication of the mayor of Austin’s decree that May 3 be “Gary Clark Jr. Day.”  That was back in 2001, when Clark was 17 years old.

Hendrix may have broken the ground that Clark currently reigns over, but Clark has already survived longer than his predecessor and demonstrated none of the live-fast-die-young tendencies. Thank God, too, because Clark clearly has much left to accomplish.  His recordings show that he has the creativity to meld styles together and forge new ground, while his performance Sunday night demonstrated that he has the soul and the talent to lead a timeless genre through a new era.

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