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With an all-star cast, Gary Clark Jr. puts the blues back in Blues on the Green

Gary Clark Jr. is not just one of the greatest talents to emerge from the Austin music scene in the past decade, but also one of its greatest champions.

In an introduction to the Clark’s Blues on the Green concert on Tuesday at Zilker Park, host Andy Langer praised the way the 37-year-old guitar hero has used his success to lift up his peers. As Clark has become an international sensation, he’s granted career-making opening opportunities on his national tours to talented locals like Jackie Venson, Tameca Jones and the Peterson Brothers.

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Gary Clark Jr. curated an all-star lineup for the season opener for Blues on the Green.

For the season opener of the 30th edition of the popular free summer music series from Austin City Limits Radio, Clark curated a selection of seven artists to perform in an all-star revue with his own ensemble 一 including, at times, Clark himself 一 playing the role of house band. In an exhilarating two-hour excursion, Clark traced his personal history in Austin music and the evolution of the signature blues-rock sound that put Austin on the map, while looking ahead to the next wave.  

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“There's nothing more Austin than what you're about to experience,”  Langer said at the top of the show.  

Less than a week after rising COVID-19 cases in the area pushed Austin into Stage 4 safety guidelines, the concert took place in the shadow of the continuing pandemic. A large crowd gathered for the show, but there were very few young children in attendance at the traditionally family-friendly event, and $10 off-site parking at nearby Austin High School was plentiful an hour before showtime.

Visitors arrive to Zilker Park to attend Blues on the Green Night 1 on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. The first night celebrated 30 years of ACL Radio's summer tradition with Gary Clark Jr's Handpicked Homegrown All-Star Revue.

With temperatures sizzling in the upper 90s, only a few people wore masks to the outdoor concert. Langer recommended people “give yourself some extra space and be courteous to people who look like they would like some extra space,” but strangers in the crowd clustered in close proximity to each other. (Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, on Tuesday urged people to mask up in public spaces, regardless of their vaccination status, even when outdoors if social distancing cannot occur.)

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The show was an exhibition of musical prowess. Young blues upstarts the Peterson Brothers set the tone. Siblings Alex Peterson on bass and Glenn Peterson Jr. on guitar challenged each other with intricate instrumental riffs and set up Clark for his first searing solo of the evening on their second song. 

As the sun began to dip and the stage light turned golden, Clark joined his childhood friend Eve Monsees for “Key To My Door,” a rollicking blues number with a retro sound that echoed the pair’s early days as teen troubadours at Antone’s. 

The crowd throws beach balls around during the Blues on the Green opener at Zilker Park on Tuesday.

Rapper Kydd Jones, who is scheduled to open for Clark on his fall tour, led the crowd in a slow clap while he unraveled the introspective rhyme “James Baldwin,” accompanied by melancholy guitar strains from Bomani Ray Barton, then kicked it up to flex his mic skills over a ‘90s throwback groove. 

Newly minted Austinite Suzanne Santo, who recently relocated from L.A., showcased her grit and fury on "Fall For That," her recent single with Clark. Then, as darkness fell on the park, the Clark-produced rap duo Blackillac kicked the energy up to 11, drawing some of the biggest cheers of the night and almost certainly throwing down the first booty-clap track in the history of Blues on the Green. 

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With her stunning ability to make a six-string sing, Jackie Venson is Clark’s most obvious heir apparent on the Austin music scene. She was spectacular in her set, trading grimy gut-bucket riffs with Clark and cementing Austin’s legacy as an electric blues supercenter. 

Blues artist Jackie Venson put in a stunning showcase at Blues on the Green on Tuesday.

Bringing the evening full circle, Clark’s final guest was local legend Jimmie Vaughan, who helped build Clark’s career by taking him on the road when he was still a young up-and-comer. The two performed an electrifying exchange on a Gatemouth Brown classic.

Clark took the set out with a solo performance that included a thrilling rendition of his breakthrough hit, “Bright Lights, Big City,” with a jaw-dropping guitar solo that stretched for almost two minutes. 

Overall, the evening was a celebration of guitar wizardry. It was also a showcase of Black excellence that answered criticisms about the event’s lack of diversity that arose last year. But primarily, it was a fantastic show that put the blues back in Blues on the Green in a profound way, while expanding the audience’s understanding of the myriad of genres that follow the lineage of the classic American form. 

Blues on the Green continues at 8 p.m. on Wednesday with a show featuring Mobley and Kalu and the Electric Joint, followed by a pair of shows on Aug. 10-11. The performers for the August shows have yet to be announced.