Gary Clark Jr. : When My Train Pulls In
Photo by Frank Maddocks
The matchstick-thin Gary Clark Jr. walked onto the stage at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco this past February to a sold-out crowd singing him “Happy Birthday.” As a cloud of electric guitar noise filled the air in the historic venue, Clark and his backing band quickly laid into the Hendrix-like rock-blues of “When My Train Pulls In.”
During the evening, the audience hooted—and even screamed—as the 28 year old nimbly threaded guitar solos through a set of originals and covers. On an extended jam that folded in Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” the lyrics of Little Johnny Taylor’s “If You Love Me Like You Say,” some Tom Morello-styled guitar scratching and a drum solo, the entire audience seemed to be bobbing their heads at the stage along with a new guitar deity.
Clark’s electrifying blues-rock songs, his versatile vocals and his incendiary guitar solos galvanized the crowd into awe-inspired adulation. What’s interesting is that few in attendance knew much, if anything, about this young Texan musician. He hadn’t released his major label debut Blak And Blu on Warner Bros. Records yet though they goosed consumers’ initial excitement with a four-song The Bright Lights EP. (Prior to signing to Warner Bros., Clark put out two albums and an EP on the Hotwire label. (Half of the songs from Blak And Blu are re-recorded versions of songs previously released.)
While Clark’s only recently gained national recognition, he’s been popular in Austin for years. Locals such as music promoter Clifford Antone (owner of famed club Antone’s) and blues guitarist Jimmie Vaughan Clark (brother of Stevie) saw something special in the young player and offered to help. Clark had racked up multiple Austin Music Awards, and, in 2001, when the guitarist was a mere 17 years old, Austin’s mayor proclaimed May 3 as “Gary Clark Jr. Day” in the city.
It was the potent performance of his original “Bright Lights” at Eric Clapton’s 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival that first broke Clark to wider audience (and got Warner Bros.’s attention). During the number, the crowd, which had seen countless guitar solos already, stirred to life as Clark repeated the lyrics “you are going to know my name by the end of the night” and let loose with two lit fuse solos. (Fellow Texan guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, who used to play in Clapton’s band, introduced Clark to Clapton, who then invited Clark to the festival.)
“I wasn’t really nervous,” Clark says from Austin, where he’s putting the final touches on Blak And Blue about the invitation to play Crossroads. After a long pause, he confides, “Yeah, I was nervous.”
He continues reminiscing about the transformative experience: “It was the most people I’ve played in front of. All of these [famous guitar] guys are going to be within earshot of what I’m doing. So leading up to the gig was torture for me. But, once I finally got up there and did it, it was an amazing moment.”
Though the backstage at Crossroads was crowded with his music idols, Clark says he didn’t interact much with the musicians at the festival. “I kind of kept to myself,” he says. “I felt like a new kid at school. Like, on day one, I’m supposed to be here, but I don’t really think I quite fit in.”
Soon after Crossroads, it became obvious that things had changed for Clark. “People were curious who I was and where I came from and what I was all about,” he says.
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