Playing modern blues means striking a delicate balance between playing original and inventive music and paying homage to the genre's storied past. What separates the greats from the rest is not so much the structure and composition of the music, but more the attitude and spirit exuded while playing it. Tuesday night’s Ogden Theatre show featuring Gary Clark Jr. exhibited musicians from multiple places on the blues spectrum, yet each act proved that its own brand of blues music was authentic, emotive and genuine.
Opening up the back-to-back sold-out stand at the Ogden was Black Pistol Fire, from Clark’s home town of Austin. The group, slated to play this year’s Westword Music Showcase, plays a style of “thrash” blues complete with blown-out, fuzzed guitars that guitarist/vocalist Kevin McKeown plays through a series of three different combo amps. Fleshed out by drummer Eric Owen, Black Pistol Fire draws easy comparisons to other two-piece acts like the Black Keys and White Stripes, but the duo also showed elements of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and classic bluesmen like Muddy Waters. McKeown attacked the stage with abandon, jumped into the crowd to play, writhed on the floor and hopped up on Owen’s kit, all without missing a strum. McKeown's playing style is steeped in the pentatonic structure so many have played before, but Black Pistol Fire, which released a self-titled album in 2015, performed with an energy and earnestness that warrants all of the band's recent accolades. The group ended its set with a mash-up of Neil Young's "Ohio" and Nirvana's "No Recess," an apparent homage to Kurt Cobain, who passed away on this day 22 years ago.
If Black Pistol Fire represent unbridled abandon and energy, Gary Clark Jr. represents restraint. It's clear that the spirit of the blues flows through Clark as soon as he steps on stage, yet he slowly burns it out, one song at a time. He twitches and pulses like the music is possessing him, and it appears that if he let it out all at once, fires could start.
Clark took the stage with his three-piece band bathed in a blue light and began his slow boil with the song “Bright Lights,” off of 2012’s eponymous album. The song, which hints at Clark’s rise in the music world, starts slow and then builds to a fever pitch, featuring huge solos by both Clark and guitarist Eric Zapata. While Zapata is clearly an expert musician and showman in his own right, his leads and performance lacked the fire of Clark's, but in his defense, most guitarists, when compared to Clark, are found lacking.
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Clark ramped up his blues-hero role even further on tracks like “When My Train Pulls In” and “Don’t Owe You a Thing,” off of his 2014 Live album. Here, Clark used his wah-wah pedal to create massive multi-stringed leads that started with tasteful space before erupting into arpeggio flourishes that caused the capacity crowd to applaud before he had even finished his phrases.
Clark's rhythm section, which includes bassist Johnny Bradley and drummer Johnny Radelat, supplied an airtight foundation for Clark to experiment inside, and he did just that, sometimes playing behind the beat, sometimes slightly in front. Yet no matter where Clark decided to go, it was all done with purpose and ended him back in the pocket.
For all his guitar-hero antics, Clark also proved himself a great songwriter and crooner on songs like “You Saved Me” and “Church,” strumming simple “cowboy chords” and lightly humming into a harmonica. There is little Clark can't do, and on this night, he pulled out all the stops.
It’s hard not to watch Clark and think of names like Vaughan, Hendrix and King. Like those bluesmen before him, Clark is on his way to completely mastering his craft. And while his prescience and playing definitely nod to those greats, Gary Clark Jr. is carving out his own place in music history.