Gary Clark Jr. took the stage Tuesday for his third “Austin City Limits” taping to thunderous cheers from a hometown crowd. Clark’s new album, “This Land,” which dropped in February, contains some of his most powerful songwriting to date. To promote the album, he’s been making the late night rounds, scorching stages on “The Late Show” and the “Daily Show” and logging a jaw-dropping performance on “Saturday Night Live.” It was clear his hometown fans wanted him to know he’s done us proud.
“This Land” is an ambitious album and, on it, Clark pushes his stylistic boundaries hard. In an expansive set that stretched over 90 minutes, he played much of it on Tuesday night. He opened with the hard-driving blues rocker “What About Us” then conjured warm romance on “When I’m Gone.”
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“Can we play some rock ‘n’ roll?” he asked as an intro to “Low Down Rolling Stone.” It was the first song with a full guitar solo and Clark reminded us he can make a six-string sing like no one else.
Clark is an artist’s artist and he executed brilliantly throughout the whole set, but the songwriting on “This Land” is somewhat uneven. He front-loaded the show with lesser known tracks and, at times, the early part of his set felt ponderous.
Around the midpoint, the show shifted into high gear. A transition from the easy reggae groove of “Feeling Like a Million” into the muscular riffs of “Gotta Get Into Something,” a punk-fueled hard rocker, was brilliant. From there on out, Clark was on fire. He blazed through “Got to Get Up” and then brought the crowd to their feet with a sizzling rendition of the classic, “When My Train Comes In.”
His guitar solo on the latter track was a masterclass in creative improvisation. He wandered between different registers, explored various motifs and broke it down low to build it back into strobed-out fury.
From there he segued into a subdued quick cut of “Blak and Blu” that gave way to his breakout hit “Bright Lights, Big City.” With the crowd fully hyped he tore through a fierce (although edited for television) version of “This Land.” The song is a personal battle cry, directly addressed to the racists in his neighborhood. It’s also one of the strongest protest songs of the Trump era.
He closed the main set channeling Prince on “Pearl Cadillac,” a gorgeous R&B/pop crooner that he wrote for his parents, who were in the house.
He left the stage to ecstatic applause, then came back a few minutes later to close out the show with a blistering version of the Beatles’ “Come Together.”
Then he left the stage again, hometown hero status cemented for the ages.