Gary Clark Jr. tuned his guitar from the stage as a dense sea of people stood waiting in Zilker Park to hear him play two weeks ago. Up front, some of them yelled out things like “We love you Gary!” When Clark, in jeans, a black tank top, brimmed hat and boots, finished tuning, a deep, grinding note hung over the crowd. The audience screamed, and Clark looked out at the Austin City Limits Music Festival for the first time. A huge smile took over his face; he nodded at his fans before ripping into the relentless blues rock of “When My Train Pulls In.”
Sweat poured down in the unusually unforgiving mid-October sun as Clark continued to show people who didn’t know what the hype was about: a guitar onslaught of wildly focused intensity and patience coupled with an equally good singing voice. On “Don’t Owe You a Thing,” he offered up a speedy blues freak-out; he entranced with his stormy version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun.”
Festival organizers C3 Presents estimated the crowd at 30,000. Regardless of how many people actually crowded in to see him, Clark commanded a level of attention at this year’s ACL Fest usually reserved for a nighttime headliner — during a 2 p.m. set on Sunday.
For the past year or two, people at nearly every festival – including the big ones such as Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo —watched the 28-year-old Clark do the same. President Obama, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Eric Clapton and plenty of other big names endorsed him. Though he independently released recordings over the years, 2011’s “Bright Lights” EP helped spread his music to a much wider audience; last week’s release of his major label debut, “Blak and Blu” (Warner Bros.), should do the same.
After the set, Clark camped in an Airstream trailer in the festival’s press area. It seemed like every publication covering the three-day event wanted to get some kind of interview or photo. He stopped for every person who wanted to take a picture. One woman shook his hand and just said, “Thank you for your set.” Clark looked surprised.
Clark said he didn’t mind the marathon of interviews; he had been waiting for his hometown festival all year. “Pretty much everything in my whole experience — when I first picked up a guitar, from that moment, the first time I got up on stage, playing my first gig, counting the money in the tip jar, playing for nobody, doing that for so long, just the progression of a whole decade-plus kind of flashed before my eyes, in front of all these people — it was a bit overwhelming,” he said. “It was really a special moment for me, I was proud to see my family, people I went to school with since I was a little kid, new faces, tons of them, that energy, to share that with so many folks here, after everything, it was one of the best times in my life. I’ll look back on that forever.”
Bikes, basketball and the blues
Eve Monsees’ family moved to Austin when she was 8 years old. Gary Clark Jr. lived four or five houses away on an intersecting street. She could see his house from her yard. Years before either of them played the blues, they rode their bikes to school and played basketball together. Then, when Eve was 12, she got an electric guitar.
Clark followed not long after. From his bedroom, he could hear music coming out of Monsees’ house and would wander over and they would listen to music together – Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins. They watched a bootleg VHS copy of the American Folk Blues Festival, studying what T- Bone Walker, Otis Rush, Magic Sam and others were doing. Monsees took guitar lessons for about a year; Clark taught himself. He learned other instruments, too, as his sister played the drums and a cousin played bass. He was drawn in by the challenge of figuring out what he was hearing in the music.
On Monsees’ 15th birthday, she and Gary went to Babe’s (now Friends) downtown, where local blues musicians jammed. Gary and Eve sat in – their first time on stage together – but they didn’t know a lot of the lingo (“starts on the five”) that the older players used. They would return every week, eventually figuring it all out together. At that point, none of their classmates were interested in what they were doing. “I think it was a really special and unique time for both of us in that regard,” Monsees said.
Soon Clark and Monsees were playing gigs with other musicians around town, including Tuesday nights at Joe’s Generic Bar with bassist Erin Jaimes. Clark developed a style that could adapt to different situations — whether he was playing with four other people or as a one-man band. “He’s not just a guitar player, and he’s not just a lead player. He’s able to play rhythm, he’s able to do some finger picking where he’ll use his thumb to play bass notes and still have something else going on the higher end of the guitar, too,” Monsees said. “It’s a combination of a lot of things that develops into a unique sound and you can hear lots of different influences.”
Someone called them on stage one night at Antone’s; Denny Freeman, who moved to Austin in 1970 and played with the Vaughan brothers and just about every other blues legend, had seen plenty of aspiring young players overdo it imitating Stevie Ray Vaughan, but he had heard from friends that Gary and Eve could play, and they impressed him.
“Stevie and Jimmie, when they were both really young, and people heard them, people heard something that was out of the ordinary,” Freeman said last week. “We weren’t surprised that the rest of the world was going to know who they were. I would definitely put Gary in a class with them.”
Clifford Antone supported the two young musicians as well, helping them with, among other things, an opening slot for Jimmie Vaughan at an Antone’s anniversary show, billed as “Gary and Eve.” “We got our names on the back of the T-shirt, which was a really big deal,” Monsees said. “I remember Clifford saying, ‘When you get older your last names go on there, too’.”
Ready to rock
Lately, Gary Clark Jr. has been listening to two songs before he goes on stage: one old — O.V. Wright’s 1971 soul groove “Ace of Spades” — and one new, “Ready to Rock,” from rapper and producer Oddisee. On the first, Wright declares, over a thumping rhythm section and blaring horns, “I’m the ace of spades, you can’t beat me.” Oddisee makes his entrance more subtly than Wright, but he gets his point across: “I’m ready to rock/apologize for the wait.” “It’s good hype music,” Clark said.
With “Blak and Blu,” which was produced in part by Mike Elizondo (Fiona Apple, Dr. Dre), Clark released an album that reflects a similar diversity in taste. He retained the blues influence on “When My Train Pulls In,” but he also took some extreme detours into R&B and elsewhere, especially with songs like “The Life,” a bouncy pop song that couldn’t stray any farther from the rough edges of “Bright Lights.”
Clark said that his decision to cut an album with such a diversity of tracks comes from listening to music with Monsees. While they were digging into old blues, Hendrix and the Ramones, he was also checking out Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. Rap, however, wasn’t allowed in the Clark household, so Gary would hide it from his parents on cassettes with fake labels.
He also points to growing up as a musician in the always diverse Austin. “I don’t filter,” he said. “It’s something that doesn’t really happen in this city, it seems natural to bounce from one thing to another, and (the label) let me do it.”
You’re gonna know my name
The numerous retellings of Clark’s story all point to two events that helped propel him into the limelight: a starring role in John Sayles’ 2007 film “Honeydripper,” in which he played guitarist Sonny Blake; and Eric Clapton’s 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago, where he floored the audience with his fired-up version of Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights,” which appears on last year’s EP as well as “Blak and Blu” and has more or less become his big hit. A high-profile appearance on a PBS special at the White House with B.B. King and Buddy Guy couldn’t have hurt either.
In the aftermath of Clark’s ACL set, he picked up an acoustic guitar for a short performance and interview with radio station KGSR. Instead of losing his steam in an unplugged setting, Clark found new energy, once again lighting a fire with “Bright Lights” and demonstrating that his talent doesn’t rely on electricity.
As Clark played, his publicist said that the demand for interviews and other requests has been filling his inbox with 500 emails a day.
In the two weeks since ACL Fest, Clark hit the road again, working the late-night television circuit, the Voodoo Fest in New Orleans and a three-night run at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. Next year, he’s headed to South America for Lollapaloozas in Brazil and Chile.
Asked whether he’s tired of playing “Bright Lights” night after night, Clark says that the song actually makes more sense to him now. “The whole thing about the song is getting it together, pushing forward, staying focused, not too distracted with being inspired, and I feel like that’s what’s been happening to me,” he said. “I’m so fortunate that I can get up and play guitar and sing my songs, and people come out and smile and dig it.”