Gary Clark Jr. was already well-established as a blues musician by the time his “Blak and Blu” was released in 2012. But believing he was much more than a bluesman, his record label didn’t want the Austin, Texas-based guitarist to be slotted too deeply in a genre that no longer had the cache it once did.
Thus, “Blak and Blue” opened with a blast of soul: “Ain’t Messin’ Round” featured Memphis-style horns circa the late-’60s. “Things Are Changin’, a sweet soul ballad, had a Memphis vibe too. The title track was driven by hip-hop rhythms under Clark’s laid back vocal, and so was “The Life” in which Clark entered accompanied by a chiming piano. “Travis County” was a racing boogie number – Chuck Berry turned up to 10. “You Saved Me” tapped into reggae.
The move to add diversity to Clark’s portfolio worked: those performances were appealing, some very much so. But Clark’s history and reputation demanded blistering blues. Clifford Antone, the late owner of Antone’s, the Austin blues club, championed him as a young teen and put him on stage with blues giants like James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins and Hubert Sumlin – thus, an indelible association. Further, Clark’s first moment in the national spotlight came at age 22 when he was featured in John Sayles's 2007 film “Honeydripper," set in the early 1950s in rural Alabama where electric blues is seen as an intruder. In 2010, he made an impressive appearance at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival and was among the artists on the live "Crossroads" DVD, playing his own composition "Bright Lights" and joining blues masters Doyle Bramhall III, Clapton, Susan Tedeschi and her husband, Derek Trucks. That year, he issued a self-titled EP that included four songs that would turn up on “Blak and Blue.”
Perhaps the best thing about Clark’s 2012 major-label debut was the sound of his guitar, which he applied most effectively in the blues numbers. It was a big, bruising, nasty, crunchy sound about as raw as the recording could bare. He applied it best on the bold rock-blues numbers: “When My Train Pulls In” harkened back to early ‘70s power blues as well as his influences like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Otis Rush. In the newly recorded version of “Bright Lights,” harsh chords locked in with the downbeat by drummer J.J. Johnson. In both tracks, Clark issued sharp, stinging, solos.
Clark embraced Jimi Hendrix’s approach on “Numb,” a massive electric blues with a sledgehammer riff. Late on “Blak and Blu,” Clark paid direct homage to Hendrix by performing his “Third Stone from the Sun” – a fixture in his live shows – in medley with a snappy reading of Little Johnny Taylor’s “If You Love Me Like You Say.” It worked wonderfully well as Clark played with power and patience. Performed by Clark on a wood resonator guitar, “Next Door Neighbor Blues” concluded the album, leaving the listener with the pleasant aftertaste of beautifully made Delta blues.
“Blak and Blu” won Clark a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Please Come Home.” (He was also nominated for Best Rock Performance for “Ain’t Messin’ Around.”) Two years after its initial release, Clark issued “Blak and Blue The Mixtape” with remixed versions of the original tracks by Big K.R.I.T., Robert Glasper, Talib Kweli and others in order to stake a claim in other genres.
The year 2014 saw the arrival of “Gary Clark Jr. Live,” which included most of the tracks on “Blak and Blu” as well as “Catfish Blues,” a Delta blues that was part of Hendrix’s repertoire, and a slow, simmering take on Lowell Fulson’s “Three O’Clock Blues,” famously covered by B.B. King. Earlier this year, he released “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim,” which topped the Billboard blues album charts. It was another diverse collection with the blues at its core and, following the template established by the thoroughly terrific “Blak and Blu,” it further cemented Clark’s reputation for wandering outside the confines of a genre he clearly loved and could dominate.