Gary Clark Jr. and the New Blues

Photos by Derek Brad

Music is always changing. Without swing music, we wouldn’t have jazz or blues. Without jazz, blues, and country, we wouldn’t have rock n’ roll. And without rock n’ roll, well, we wouldn’t have a plethora of genres: metal, punk rock, pop, hip-hop, etc. New music is constantly picking and choosing the qualities of old genres that the artists are influenced by and attempting to fuse them into something new and exciting. Sometimes, musicians even take the elements of a genre that are already grounded and well-known, before using that as a basis to reform the genre. These are ambitious adventures, because it is never guaranteed that it will work; there’s always the chance that the new form of a specific genre fails miserably because people are still too attached to the old, or they don’t think that the old was done justice by the new. Music is a finicky thing – the identities of so many people are almost formed around, or by, the type of music that they love the most. So trying to do something new with their beloved music might not go well in that regard. However, when done right, the new sound that is created can be almost revolutionary.

Gary Clark, Jr. is a pioneer of a new form of Blues music that has encapsulated audiences since he first broke onto the scene. Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Clark has been playing the guitar since before he was a teenager. As history works in an almost cyclical nature, Clark got his big break from promoter Clifford Antone; Antone’s was the club in which Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughn caught their big first break as well, which helped them launch the Blues genre as we have all grown up to know – a genre which Gary Clark, Jr. set out to redefine and break the conventions of.

Declared by Rolling Stone magazine to be the “Best Young Gun” in its “Best of Rock” issue, this set the stage for Clark to make an even larger impact on the scene than before. He has collaborated with artists such as Alicia Keys, and a Sheryl Crow album (which featured him singing on a cover of the Jackson 5 song “I Want You Back”). In October 2012, Clark released his first studio album, Blak and Blu, which was met with a mixed critical reception. Rolling Stone listed it at #27 of the year’s best 50 albums, while others said that the album lacked an overall cohesiveness. Really, Black and Blu saw Clark trying to get a solid hold of many different genres. It does lack a sense of cohesiveness because of all the different stuff that the tried to do with it.

One of Clark’s most well-known gifts is his ability to perform live. While musicians tend to make most of their money from live performances, the actual worth of those live performances can fluctuate depending on the actual musical prowess of the bands: Remember, a lot of musicians nowadays, especially popular pop musicians, have a lot of added bits to their music that isn’t available during a live performance – be it auto-tune, multiple drums or guitar tracks, etc. What Gary Clark, Jr. does very well is work with what musicians from several decades ago did, which is what you might expect the basics to be: guitar, drums, bass, etc. And Clark’s mastery of the guitar is obvious, if not on a studio album, then definitely during a live set.

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On live sets, Clark has played alongside the likes of blues legend B.B King, famous guitarist Jeff Beck, as well as rock legends Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. Clark, somehow, has found a way to work in a setting with these ultra-famous musicians without being drowned out by their fame. Clark has set himself aside a new niche with his re-working of the Blues genre that has the power to draw in so many people even besides the masters of beloved, classic genres that are embodied by B.B King, Beck, Jagger, and Clapton.

There is a reason why Clark is doing what he is doing, though. Do not be fooled into believing that this is another talented musician who is trying to glorify a new type of an old genre simply because they think they can, or want to. A lot of what Clark has gone through in order to reinvent the Blues genre is an introspective look as to why those numbers became popular in the first place. And, as Clark put it, Blues is a genre that outdates the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of what happened with the Blues is because African Americans had to find a way to break out of the systemic oppression of the segregationist Jim Crow era.

And Clark, who grew up in Texas where systemic racism is still a widely known problem, realized that what he had gone through was different than his musical ancestors – while, simultaneously, it was very similar to what old Blues greats had gone through. So this was how he has come to adopt a new form of the Blues genre; as a way to symbolize the reflection as a young artist growing up in the post-Civil Rights era, while marking the incredible differences that show how far society has come since then.

Since then, there has been the invent of hip-hop, electronica-style music, etc. Clark is using this as a way to do the same as his predecessors, such as his mentor Jimmy Vaughan. Taking the tools that have been given to him by this new generation, Clark combines the repeating musical loops of hip-hop with old-school Blues-y riffs and a voice that sounds as if he were classically trained in singing. There is a reason why Clark is believed to be the pioneer of a new era of Blues music, and there is a reason why Rolling Stone called him the Best Young Gun in the music business as of now. Clark is doing what he does without pretention – he is doing this with a purpose and a message, with insanely catchy music. In an attempt to just make the music that is floating around in his head, Clark has helped revolutionize a genre that, as he explained it, dawned in the pre-Civil Rights era. Without dropping the Old Blues sensibilities for popular, catchy tunes, Clark has is doing what many have tried to do. And he is doing it with a grace that is very uncommon, now, in this era of money-grabbing pop-music.

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